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What is Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP)?

Developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) emphasizes tailoring teaching methods to align with each child's individual needs. Create a curriculum that prioritizes your children’s unique experiences and identities by implementing this approach.

What is Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP)?

What is Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP)?

Developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) is an approach that recognizes the unique developmental needs, interests, and abilities of children in their early years. DAP emphasizes creating educational environments that align with a child's natural growth trajectory and their social and cultural contexts, ensuring that teaching methods, activities, and materials are tailored to their individual needs.

In this article, we will delve into the principles of developmentally appropriate practice in early education settings, exploring how it supports holistic development, nurtures a love for learning, and lays the foundation for future academic success. 

What is developmentally appropriate practice?

Developmentally appropriate practice refers to teaching techniques that consider a child’s individual needs and their social and cultural contexts to create an engaging learning experience. This teaching method prioritizes children’s strengths based on their cognitive and social-emotional development, environment, and social and cultural context.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) defines developmentally appropriate practice as "methods that promote each child's optimal development and learning through a strengths-based, play-based approach to joyful, engaged learning."

In the mid-1980s, NAEYC released its first position statement on developmentally appropriate practice in response to inappropriate teaching practices and expectations in preschool and kindergarten. Since its initial development, NAEYC’s position statement on developmentally appropriate practice has been revised three times due to advances in research concerning the social, cultural, and historical contexts that influence young children’s development.

There are many ways that teachers can implement developmentally appropriate practice in their programs to ensure that children are supported. For example, teachers can speak with families about their children’s cultural experiences to gain insight into how their personal experiences and cultural identities may affect their development and understanding of concepts.

A young child sitting on the floor and playing with wooden blocks.Source

Principles that inform developmentally appropriate practice

NAEYC defines nine principles of child development that inform developmentally appropriate practice:

1. Children’s development and learning processes reflect the complex interplay between their biological characteristics and environment

Studies show that children who face prolonged adversities such as poverty, racial and cultural discrimination, and limited family resources in early childhood can develop changes in brain chemistry that lead to learning, behavioral, physical, and mental health issues later in life.

Teachers can provide their children with a consistent, responsive, and sensitive educational environment that helps every child feel seen and appreciated so they can handle possible adversities and negative impacts of their environment. 

Classroom curriculum can also promote values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. One simple way teachers can do this is by reading picture books that feature characters from diverse backgrounds so all children can see themselves represented in stories.

2. All child development domains and learning approaches are important and interconnected

Early childhood educators are responsible for fostering each child’s physical, cognitive, social- emotional, and language development. As children learn skills in one developmental domain, they progress in other related domains. For example, as a child develops their language skills, they become capable of communicating more easily with other children, thus developing their social skills.

Teachers can use games and activities to help children develop skills in multiple domains. For example, playing games like “Simon Says” helps children develop physically, cognitively, and linguistically by improving their gross and fine motor skills, teaching them to follow and give directions, and improving their vocabulary.

3. Play is essential for all children from birth through age 8

Play-based learning promotes children’s overall wellness and development and fosters their language, motor, cognitive, social, and emotional self-regulation skills. Playing also encourages children’s natural curiosity and allows them to practice the skills they learn in the classroom.

It's important for play-based learning to be child-led and process-oriented so children can explore without learning objectives or end goals. Teachers can help children learn through play by encouraging them to participate in unstructured, free play that allows children to learn their interests and dislikes and make mistakes.

4. Cultural contexts, experiences, and individual differences must be considered when evaluating children’s development

Children’s cultural identities influence how they demonstrate developmental milestones. For instance, children who primarily speak English may reach social and language development milestones at a different rate than children who are dual language learners and primarily speak a language other than English at home. 

Teachers can communicate with families to learn more about children’s cultures to ensure the procedures they use to assess children’s development are equitable and free of cultural bias.

5. Children constantly take in and organize information to create meaning through their interactions and experiences

Children are active learners who acquire knowledge and make sense of the world through observation and interaction with adults and other children around them. In some cultures, children learn new skills and behaviors by actively participating in new experiences, while children in other environments might learn new skills by quietly observing appropriate behaviors.

Teachers can create a positive learning environment that allows children to interact without guidance and develop their own social identities. 

6. Children’s motivation to learn increases when their learning environment fosters their sense of belonging, purpose, and agency

Children are more motivated to learn when they feel appreciated and physically and psychologically safe in their classroom environment. Teachers can help children feel safe and appreciated by giving them opportunities to meet adults and other children who share their culture and home language. These experiences help affirm children’s identities and foster their language and social-emotional development.

Teachers can also foster children’s sense of autonomy by giving them opportunities to make decisions that impact their learning experiences, such as what activities they’ll take part in or what story will be read to them.

7. Teachers need subject-area knowledge, an understanding of the learning progressions within each subject area, and pedagogical knowledge about teaching each subject effectively

It's important for educators to have a deep understanding of the concepts of multiple subjects and the connections that can be made between multiple subject areas. This allows teachers to design interdisciplinary activities that let children explore the core concepts of multiple subjects at once.

Additionally, understanding the language associated with each discipline helps teachers provide instructions and explain important concepts to their children while avoiding potentially biased language.

8. Children develop and learn when challenged and given opportunities to practice newly acquired skills

Children will thrive in a learning environment where they are emotionally supported and motivated to attempt challenging, new skills. Teachers can observe children’s progress toward mastering skills and encourage them to use their skills to complete new tasks.

For example, children who have mastered sorting identical blocks by color can be asked to sort toys of various shapes by color. By introducing an appropriate level of challenge at the right time, also know as scaffolding, educators can help children progress in their development.

9. Technology and interactive media can be valuable tools for supporting children’s learning when used responsibly and intentionally

Using technology in moderation can supplement daily classroom lessons and help children practice essential skills. For example, children can use tablets to listen to picture books with audio to identify letters and sounds as a way to support their learning in the classroom.

Technology can also help teachers communicate with multilingual children using voice recognition and translation software. In addition, technology and digital media can be used to facilitate communication between educators, families, and children and simplify documentation and assessments. 

What are the most important tenets of DAP?

The most important tenets of DAP center on educators creating culturally responsive learning experiences and leveraging children's individuality and their own knowledge to promote development.

Educators create culturally responsive learning experiences

Developmentally appropriate education programs support and appreciate all families’ rich cultural identities by setting classroom expectations that reflect diverse values and cultures. Teachers practice culturally responsive teaching practices and connect children's unique cultures, experiences, and languages to what they are learning in the classroom. 

For instance, educators can ensure different cultures and identities are represented in the learning materials they use for lessons and celebrate different traditions and holidays from around the world.

Educators leverage children’s individuality to promote learning and development

Developmentally appropriate practice values each child’s individuality and personal identity. Teachers must develop deep relationships with families and get to know each child’s strengths, needs, and interests as well as their cultural identity and values.

Learning about the identities of each child and family helps teachers learn the best ways to connect with and teach the children. This is especially helpful when teaching children with disabilities and children who don’t share the teacher’s cultural identity.

Educators leverage their child development knowledge to promote development across all domains

Teachers can use their knowledge of child development to determine the best ways to teach their children. Teachers can adapt teaching strategies informed by child development to accommodate their children’s unique abilities, strengths, and experiences. Personalizing lessons and activities helps teachers set culturally-appropriate goals that foster every child’s overall development.

To further support your children’s growth and development at each stage, download our list of activity ideas promoting language, sensory, social-emotional, cognitive, and physical development.

Download our free list of activities across developmental domains!

How does DAP support children’s development?

Developmentally appropriate practice is a cornerstone of early education that plays a vital role in supporting children's holistic development. By tailoring teaching methods and activities to align with their individual needs, DAP creates an environment where children can thrive intellectually, socially, emotionally, and physically. 

Teachers meet children where they are developmentally and see them as individuals

Developmentally appropriate practice allows teachers to get to know each child personally through observations and forming relationships with their families. This allows teachers to engage children in meaningful and joyful work and teach them lessons using their interests and strengths as a guide.

Teachers can use observations to determine when children have mastered skills and need to be challenged. By observing children’s growth individually, teachers can challenge each child at the right pace and help them become confident, persistent, and motivated learners.

Teachers acknowledge each child’s social and cultural context

Teachers who implement developmentally appropriate practice create a culturally responsive and inclusive learning environment for all of their children. As a result, children feel a strong sense of belonging and community, promoting the social-emotional development necessary for learning.

Two children playing with riding toys in a classroom.Source

Developmentally appropriate practice benefits

The benefits of DAP extend beyond academic achievement, encompassing social-emotional development, self-confidence, critical thinking skills, and a love for learning.

Children learn to respect each other’s differences

Developmentally appropriate practice encourages children to view themselves and their peers as valued individuals with unique strengths, identities, and experiences. Developmentally appropriate practice teaches children to appreciate and respect the differences that make each person an individual.

Children learn to be persistent when facing challenges

Developmentally appropriate practice encourages teachers to offer gentle guidance and encouragement to children when they’re trying tasks rather than completing the tasks for them. This helps children learn to persist in challenging situations and teaches them that they can complete difficult tasks.

Teachers focus on children’s individual levels of understanding

Every child grows and develops at their own pace. Teachers use observation to determine if children are reaching developmental milestones quickly and need to be challenged or if they’re struggling and need additional support to reach the next milestone. 

Using DAP strategies in the classroom

Early childhood educators can apply the principles of developmentally appropriate practice in the ways they teach, motivate, and support the children in their classrooms. 


  • Introduce new material by making comparisons and connections to familiar concepts. For example, when teaching children about mixing colors, have the child identify each primary color and identify something of that color: “Red like an apple. Blue like the sky.” Then have the child mix the paints and identify the new color: “Purple like a grape.
  • Show children the correct method to complete a task, such as washing their hands, writing numbers, or putting away toys.
  • Provide information to children by giving facts or correct labels to things or objects, for example identifying the correct names of different shapes.


  • Acknowledge what children do. For example, praise children for positive actions such as “It was nice of you to share your toy”, or “High five! You put your coat in your cubby all by yourself.”
  • Encourage children to be persistent and complete tasks. For example, you can say, “You’ve done a good job writing the first letter of your name. Can you write the next letter?
  • Model positive behavior towards others rather than simply telling children what to do. For example, “It looks like my friend doesn’t have anything to color with. I’m going to share my crayons with them.” 


  • Give children specific feedback such as, “The beanbag didn’t get all the way to the hoop, so try throwing it harder.
  • Offer hints or cues when teaching new lessons that build on established skills. For example, place a few objects on a table in two piles so that one pile is larger than the other. Ask the child to identify the pile with more objects while offering a hint such as, “Does this pile look bigger or smaller than that pile?
  • Ask questions that prompt additional learning, for example, “What words rhyme with cat?

Partnering with families to implement DAP practices

Strong family-teacher partnerships are essential to a child’s early learning success. Establishing family-teacher relationships early on helps teachers learn more about each child’s unique culture, strengths, and abilities and keeps families informed of their child’s overall progress.

Solid partnerships allow families to be more engaged with their child’s daily learning and support teachers’ efforts in the classroom. Consider the below strategies to effectively partner with families to implement developmentally appropriate practices.

Conduct intakes at the beginning of the year

At the beginning of the school year, teachers can meet with individual families and children at intake meetings to learn more about each child. Teachers can use this time to gather information about each family’s unique circumstances as well as share more about the program and ease any worries that families may have.

Establish open lines of communication

Ongoing communication between educators and families is key in promoting family engagement in their child’s learning. Teachers can use things like daily reports or childcare management software such as brightwheel to communicate with families and give them real-time updates about their children. A tool like this will build trust between your staff and families and simplify communication in one central place.

Document learning progress

Teachers can document children’s progress towards developmental milestones and learning goals through tools like progress reports or child portfolios. This way, both educators and families are informed about each child’s achievements, areas for improvement, and growth in key developmental areas, and can work together to support their learning success.

Hold family-teacher conferences

Family-teacher conferences allow families and teachers to meet in person to discuss children’s progress and learn about any changes at home that may impact their learning. Conferences also allow families the opportunity to offer their perspectives on their child’s progress, ask any questions, and share their expectations.

Partner with families on curriculum

Working with families to develop a curriculum helps teachers understand areas of a child’s development that they may not be able to observe each day, such as getting dressed or brushing their teeth. For example, a child may have trouble buttoning their pants in the morning before coming to your center. A teacher may be able to help them develop this fine motor skill by incorporating a buttoning activity in their lesson plan.


Implementing developmentally appropriate practice in your early education program will ensure your lessons affirm and support every child’s unique identity. Recognize how social, cultural, and historical context may affect each child’s learning and work with families to incorporate practices that prioritize each child’s individual experiences and identities.

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