Developmentally Appropriate Practice Handbook

Chapter 4

Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum

photo of children cooking

untitled photo, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY by Seattle Parks and Recreation, taken March 27, 2016, from Flickr

Before you plan lessons, you need to know where each child's skill levels lie. Challenge children by looking to the next level of competency and support them as they work toward that goal. Be aware of difficulties they are likely to have and provide the scaffolding they need to conquer the challenge. For instance, if a class of four-year-olds is working to cut out shapes for a collage and you find that one child is having difficulty manipulating the scissors, you need to find a way to help that child be successful. The cutting task can be made easier by offering the child a pair of adaptive scissors (such as scissor that spring back open on their own) or slightly thicker paper (which helps prevent the paper from slipping between the blades of the scissors). At the same time, a child who is adept at cutting could be given more complicated shapes to cut. 

[A developmentally appropriate] curriculum meets children at their current skill levels and fosters individual and group progress. The materials, activities, and interactions offer challenges without causing frustration. The goal is for all children to experience success and be motivated to learn. Clearly, such effective teaching does not happen by chance. A hallmark of developmentally appropriate teaching is intentionality. Good teachers are intentional in everything they do—setting up the classroom, planning curriculum, making use of various teaching strategies, assessing children, interacting with them, and working with their families. Intentional teachers are purposeful and thoughtful about the actions they take, and they direct their teaching toward the goals the program is trying to help children reach. (NAEYC, 2009a, p. 10)

What role do standards play in a developmentally appropriate classroom?

An understanding of the skills that children typically develop at each age is necessary to effectively plan and implement successful lessons. When planning does not take this into consideration, children often aren't challenged or they are overwhelmed with activities for which they are not intellectually or physically ready.  Standards identify the skills that are appropriate to teach children at different ages. The Maryland Early Learning Standards is one such resource. You can access these standards using the link below.

When using a resource like the Maryland Early Learning Standards, do not just review those skills for the age group you are teaching, also review the skills for the adjacent age groups. When you find that one of your children is lacking a skill listed at a younger age level, you need to provide instruction on that earlier skill. Children with gaps in knowledge typically learned at a younger age have difficulty learning age-appropriate skills. Taking time to go back and teach earlier skills will allow children to effectively move forward.

In many classes you will also have children who have already mastered all (or most) of the skills typical for children at their age level. When this occurs, you need to make sure you are appropriately challenging them by moving on to more advanced tasks. Keep your focus on the standards for the age group you are teaching but don't hesitate to also use standards for adjacent age groups when a child's skill level requires it.

How can you address standards if you are focusing on play?


photo of children doing a science experiment

untitled photo licensed under Creative Commons CC BY by Seattle Parks and Recreation, taken November 30, 2003, from Flickr

When a classroom emphasizes play, educators ensure that learning occurs by creating an environment that encourages the development of vital skills. Teachers should also provide times in the day for the children to gather as large- or small-groups to engage in activities planned by the teacher. While the adult will guide students more during group instruction, the activities planned should be playful in nature and should incorporate opportunities for the children to make choices.


In a developmentally appropriate classroom, Bredekamp says, the teacher provides lots of organized activity. Children are actively involved in learning: writing, reading, building with blocks, doing project work, making choices. Young children need hands-on experiences and social interaction around content, she says. In math, for example, students grasp concepts better when they grapple with real-life problems and work with manipulatives.

Teachers must respect how young children learn best: through social interaction, Bredekamp says. “It shouldn't be chaos,” but children should be discussing their pursuits with peers. Research shows that children learn to solve problems better when they work in groups, she says. So while some whole-group instruction may be useful, teacher lecture should not be the rule of the day.

For the most part, teachers should avoid whole-group instruction, Katz agrees. When a teacher tries to teach something to the entire class at the same time, “chances are, one-third of the kids already know it; one-third will get it; and the remaining third won't. So two-thirds of the children are wasting their time.” To learn a particular concept, “some children need days; some, ten minutes,” says Hughes—but the typical lockstep school schedule ignores this fundamental fact. (Willis, 1993)


Video Moment

            Watch the video “Using Magnets with Different Materials” by High Scope US to see a teacher lead a small group of children in playful learning.


Putting it in Place                         

  • Refer to the Maryland Early Learning Standards as you plan daily lessons.
  • Challenge students to move past their level of competency.
  • Provide materials, books and experiences that match the interests of the children.
  • Be flexible in your planning to meet the immediate needs of children.
  • Develop a relationship with parents to facilitate two way communication about the children.
  • Continually assess each child’s level of boredom or frustration and adjust the activities accordingly.
  • Help every child be successful every day.