Skip to content

What Is Developmentally Appropriate Practice? And How to Make It a Reality at Your Early Learning Centers

What exactly is a developmentally appropriate practice in education? 🤔

Developmentally appropriate practice, or DAP, is a set of principles and activities designed to create an optimal learning path for young children. One of the main focuses of DAP is to recognize the lasting impact of early childhood experiences to ensure every child is developing in accordance with their unique abilities.

In this article, we’ll provide developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) examples of how you can bridge the gap between theory and practice. 

Get more tips on managing your centers and classrooms. ✅

Get More Tips

Table of Contents

What is developmentally appropriate practice?

In education, DAP stands for Developmentally Appropriate Practice, which is an approach to teaching and learning that takes into account a child's age, individual needs, and developmental stage. 

Get more tips on managing your centers and classrooms. ✅

Get More Tips

What are developmentally appropriate practices in early childhood education?

Research shows that neglecting developmentally appropriate practice can have negative long-term effects on young learners.

DAP is based on research in child development, emphasizing the importance of providing an environment that supports children's physical, social, emotional, and cognitive growth. Here are just two components of developmentally appropriate practices in early childhood education:

  1. Age Appropriateness: Designing activities, materials, and expectations that are suitable for a child's age and stage of development. What is developmentally appropriate for a 3-year-old may not be suitable for a 5-year-old.

  2. Social and Emotional Development: Fostering the social and emotional well-being of children by creating a supportive and nurturing classroom environment. This includes helping children develop self-regulation, empathy, and positive relationships with peers and adults.

Why is developmentally appropriate practice important?

Roughly 90% of the human brain is developed before the age of six. 

This means that what happens in a child's earliest years affects all facets of their life. During their first six years, children form the basic emotional, social, cognitive, and physical skills that will set them up for the rest of their life.

It's pretty astonishing when you think about it.

At just 12 months, you’re happy if your kids are learning to walk. Then, just a year later, they start making complex connections between various ideas and feelings — speaking, counting, and expressing ideas.

But this type of fast-paced development doesn't (or at least, shouldn't) happen in a vacuum.

As an early childhood educator, it's your responsibility to ensure that every child progresses through each critical stage of their development smoothly. But here's the hard part:

Every child is unique.

If your teachers have a classroom of 20 children, it's safe to assume that each and every one of them will require a custom learning approach based on their ability and current developmental level. If that sounds like a lot of work, that's because it is.

But that’s also why developmentally appropriate practice is so important. DAP equips ECE practitioners, teachers, and parents with efficient tools and principles that help ensure every child develops at their own pace in a supportive environment and with the right guidance. 

The Truth About DAP: What’s at risk if we don’t get it right?

You wouldn't lead a group of toddlers into a university auditorium and lecture them for 45 minutes, right?

But things start to get a little fuzzier when it comes to some of the more common expectations handed down from traditional education paradigms.

What are some developmentally appropriate practice examples in early childhood education? Goddard's play-based curriculum ensures that each child has an opportunity to develop their physical skills every day at school, whether it's the simple use of coloring materials and whiteboards or spending time outside in nature.

And it's a problem.

Applying faulty learning practices can stagnate a child’s growth, slow their ability to effectively communicate with their peers, and hinder their success throughout the entire K-12 educational path.

The harsh reality is, failing to implement DAP at your ECE centers will have long-lasting negative effects — effects that, as ECE leads, we've got to deal with right now

Here are just some of the detrimental side effects of failing to implement DAP:

  • General developmental slowdown showing up in primary schools and even college
  • Difficulty in personal and professional relationships
  • Limited career opportunities
  • Lower-income
  • A widening achievement gap

At face value, these may seem like they're worlds away from the two and three-year-olds in your care, but a growing body of evidence proves that these life challenges are seeded in preschool.  

A 20-year study of the benefits of early childhood interventions revealed that children who were subjected to early cognitive and emotional development were earning on average 25% more than those who weren't.

The reality is, there’s a clear link between what happens in early education spaces and how well a person is set for the future — neglecting, or even underestimating, these facts can cost our children far too much in the long run.

Why are ECE leaders still struggling to implement DAP?

Clearly, this DAP stuff is important. 

But despite the fact that the benefits of DAP are backed up by multiple research studies, ECE leaders still have to make major efforts in order to successfully implement DAP at their centers. 

While there are many reasons for this, here are a few of the biggest hurdles we're up against.

DAP hurdle #1. There's a major misalignment between research and  regulations

Every business niche has to contend with its share of unintended consequences stemming from a slow-to-change regulatory system — and early learning services are no exception.

Most of the education regulations currently dictating ECE curriculums are a relic of the Cold War era when the pressure to compete was reaching a fever pitch. And while DAP practitioners are guided by the latest standards in ECE, sometimes those standards clash with state and federal education regulations.

Of course, we want our kids to be able to read and write. But what if rushing comes at the cost of a child's emotional or social development?

More and more early childhood educators are standing up and stating publicly that the tradeoff simply isn't worth it.

Today, there are educational programs in other countries that have been proven to be far more successful in reducing achievement gaps and preparing children for school. Those programs, as seen in Finland among other places, actively involve DAP practices and are focused on teaching kids how to learn rather than how to score well on test cards.

Even if you can't move the regulatory needle, you can set goals based on getting the best out of every unique child in your care, rather than trying to hold all children to the same standard.

Action Step: Hold a meeting with your center directors and teaching staff to openly acknowledge the impact of regulations on their ability to implement DAP in the classroom. Let them know that you're aware this is a challenge and ask for their best tips and ideas for how to apply DAP on a daily basis, while still meeting your center's core regulatory requirements.

DAP hurdle #2. The tech gap in DAP theory vs. practice

ECE evolves rapidly.

Every year, there's a growing number of research studies published and technologies launched — all with the aim of advancing ECE.

Today, directors and teachers can take advantage of research studies exploring a growing variety of DAP principles from the role of play in early education to the impact of gender-specific toys. The list is growing every year. 

And with hundreds of cool new tech tools to upgrade your classrooms with — everything from digital storytelling, early computer use, and even virtual reality — there's an entire world of exciting new lesson plans at your fingertips.

The problem is, the rest of society is still catching on.

Even though many leading ECE providers act as pioneers for progress in early education, they still face a certain level of resistance, even opposition, from regulators, internal decision-makers, and parents.

If you're part of a franchise, make sure you've set clear guidelines for your owners and center directors about what DAP looks like in the classroom and how it should be prioritized in relation to a more traditional preschool curriculum. The goal is to create an environment where every member of the team can step with new ideas to drive DAP across the org, without creating inefficiencies that can leak into other departments.

DAP hurdle #3. The communication gap between childcare centers and parents

In 2016, 82% of children were born to millennial parents. 

As a demographic, millennials are both very kid-oriented and very tech-savvy. And according to a 2010 survey by Pew Research, being a good parent is the #1 top priority for millennial parents. 

Still, sometimes even the best-informed parents can't help but ask questions like “Why aren’t you teaching my kid how to read?”

Questions like this might arise due to a parent not being familiar with the principles behind DAP, but sometimes the problem is just a lack of communication.

When parents have ideas or suggestions regarding the development of their child, they are often too shy to discuss them with teachers, and vice versa. On one side, parents want to trust the system, and on the other side teachers tend to shy away from any additional pressure coming from parents.

Luckily, there are a few simple ways to solve this issue:

  • Inform parents of their child’s multi-faceted progress
  • Share techniques to facilitate DAP outside the classroom
  • Gain more support from parents for evidence-based educational practices

More often than not, all that's needed is a little discussion to successfully create a common understanding that every skill should be learned at the most appropriate time — not the most seemingly appropriate time. 

The benefits of developmentally appropriate practice for toddlers

Because the core principle of DAP is to simply “respect childhood" and let kids learn at their own pace, there are infinite variations of developmentally appropriate practices for toddlers and preschoolers.

One thing most DAP activities have in common is an emphasis on play. By actively encouraging free or guided play, teachers can create environments where children can explore and acquire new, necessary skills.

Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) Examples

To ensure balanced and diverse development, ECE centers should create environments where children can learn social, emotional, cognitive, and physical skills at the same time.

Developmentally Appropriate Practice Example 1: Social Skills 

By encouraging kids to spend time playing with their peers and parents, teachers help them develop the crucial social skills that will serve them for a lifetime.

At Montessori centers, teachers encourage children to say "Good morning", make eye contact and apologize with sincerity, simply by leading by example.

These social skills are made a standard, without putting pressure on children to adapt to this standard before they're ready. For example, if some children take longer than others to cope with their emotions, the teacher may give that child extra time and attention to help work through their emotions at their own pace.

Here are some of the other ways you can introduce DAP for social skills into the classroom:

  • Use “yes, please” or “no, thank you”
  • Give and receive compliments
  • Acknowledge mistakes
  • Make genuine apologies
  • Wait patiently
  • Raise your hand
  • Identify emotions
  • Use words instead of actions
  • Develop a vocabulary to express feelings
  • Listen when others speak
  • Respect personal space

Developmentally Appropriate Practice Example 2: Cognitive Skills

Teachers can encourage conversations and help kids test their theories by asking simple questions, e.g. “How long do you think this fish is?”

Providing children with materials such as crayons, paper, and markers will also help them explore and manipulate their environments, effectively leading to cognitive development.

The goal here is simple: provide kids with the necessary materials and an open environment in which to use them. This way, you're facilitating the process of learning from within, rather than forcing it from the outside.

At Lightbridge Academy, teachers, and center directors use the brand's proprietary Seedlings Early Childhood Education Curriculum to guide a child's daily development. According to their website, this curriculum focuses on "all areas of a child's growth helping them to achieve their full potential. 

Here's how the Lightbridge curriculum ensures they're facilitating cognitive development across a variety of learning areas:

  • STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) concepts are taught at an early age, encouraging analytical thought, reasoning skills, and critical thinking while sparking creativity. 
  • Reading & Writing Readiness - features Handwriting Without Tears® with hands-on lessons that develop motor skills and prepares children to read and write. 
  • Singing Sprouts - explore music through singing, movement, instruments, a variety of cultures and styles, as well as rhythms and patterns. 
  • Spanish Sprouts - learn the basics of counting, colors, readings, and everyday communication. 
  • Signing Sprouts - fosters communication and language development; American Sign Language is used throughout all programs and age groups. 

Developmentally Appropriate Practice Example 3: Emotional Skills

Play is also imperative for a child's emotional growth. 

For example, kids can project their fears, joys, and anger onto toys or puppets, and then work out their feelings in constructive ways.

Onsite programs with singers, magicians, or puppeteers can also help facilitate the emotional development process by giving teachers the opportunity to encourage kids to reflect on and share their experiences.

At some KinderCare centers, it's not uncommon to see teachers and students using facial expressions along with words to express emotions, or openly describe and comment on emotions.

This is a fabulous example of how one DAP method can successfully support both emotional skills and communication skills at the same time.

Developmentally Appropriate Practice Example 4: Physical Skills 

Play is a dynamic, ever-changing process. Typically, it involves both motor and brain cognitive skills at the same time. 

It’s important to realize that kids should be actively exploring and interacting with their environment — for the record, playing solo console games is not considered to play in the context of DAP because it doesn't appropriately develop kids physically or socially. 

Things like scooters, tricycles, ride-and-walk cars, and the occasional field trip are all great examples of DAP-focused activities that can help develop a child's physical skills in a fun and organic way.

For example, Goddard's play-based curriculum ensures that each child has an opportunity to develop their physical skills every day at school, whether it's the simple use of coloring materials and whiteboards or spending time outside in nature. 

Just check out this video to learn more! 🙌

Developmentally Appropriate Practice In Action: It's on us to make it happen

Every year, we're hit with more and more evidence about the lasting impact of early childhood development programs. But if we want to keep progressing on a practical level, ECE providers are going to have to learn to be active advocates for change.

With better goals, better tools, and better visibility into how your centers function on the ground level, your ELS business can continue to be a true DAP trailblazer.

Not a User Yet? 

Schedule a demo to see LineLeader in action. 👍

Schedule a Demo

Already a User or Simply Want to Learn More? 

Download the benchmark report to expertly grow and manage your childcare business.

Download the Report

Video Resources 📹

Meet The Author

Hope Dasher is a marketing professional with years of SEO content writing and social media strategy experience. Hope had a Bachelor's degree from The University of Texas at Dallas in Psychology and Child Development and an emphasis on language. She has extensive knowledge of the childcare system, effective marketing strategies, and copywriting. Hope serves as a Content Specialist for the Marketing team at LineLeader by ChildcareCRM.

Subscribe to stay up to date on the latest industry news, trends and best practices for growing and managing your childcare business.