Early childhood education is vital for successful children’s development in different areas – cognitive, emotional, social, physical, and others. To ensure that each child in early education reaches the highest level of development, teachers should use best practices to guide their decision-making in the classroom. Best practices in early childhood education are the ones that are developmentally appropriate, meaning that they correspond to the child’s age, personal characteristics, and culture. This paper aims to review developmentally appropriate practice (DAP), discuss educational theories supporting it, and provide examples of best practices.
Developmentally Appropriate Practice
Recently, DAP has received much attention from scholars in the field of early childhood education. DAP refers to teaching methods that adapt to children’s age, interests, experience, and culture and assist children in meeting challenging and attainable developmental goals (Bredekamp, 2016). According to Bredekam (2016), an essential integral part of DAP is play, which is an effective way of young children’s learning and development. Yet, for children’s play to be developmentally appropriate, it should be purposefully guided by the teacher and help children accomplish challenging but achievable learning objectives.
The teacher using DAP is engaged in intentional teaching, which means that everything that happens in his or her classroom is planned and serves a particular learning purpose. An intentional teacher plans the classroom environment, the schedule, and even unplanned events, such as teachable moments. According to Bredekam (2016), an early childhood educator should create a caring community of learners, enhance children’s learning and development, plan the curriculum to reach important goals, assess children’s learning, and establish positive relationships with children and families. Overall, in DAP, nothing happens randomly; instead, teachers, using their knowledge of the peculiarities of children’s development and careful observations of children, intentionally guide children’s play to promote their learning.
NAEYC’s Code of Ethical Conduct
Apart from engaging in age-appropriate, individual-appropriate, and culturally-appropriate teaching, early childhood educators should be guided by ethical principles stated in NAEYC’s Code of Ethical Conduct. According to this code, teachers are obliged to perform their work with respect, integrity, and honesty. One of the principles particularly prohibits teachers from harming children by engaging in activities that could be “emotionally damaging, physically harmful, disrespectful, degrading, dangerous, exploitative, or intimidating to children” (Bredekam, 2016, p. 528). Under this code, educators also should never share children’s confidential information with non-authorized third parties and should obey relevant laws. Finally, the code helps teachers resolve ethical dilemmas, for example, when teachers’ personal and professional beliefs conflict with those of children’s parents.
There are several theories that support the use of DAP in early childhood education. One prominent framework is Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory. It explains that children learn through constructing their own understanding of the reality they observe and experience (Cade et al., 2022). As children interact with the world, they create mental schemes that can be further changed in response to new experiences through the process called adaptation (Bredekam, 2016). There are two ways of adaptation: assimilation (understanding new information using prior knowledge) and accommodation (altering existing knowledge that does not fit new information) (Bredekam, 2016). Another Piaget’s contribution is the description of four cognitive development stages that outline the sequence of cognitive abilities that children develop as they age. This theory is important to shaping best practices in early childhood education because it emphasizes the significance of children’s interaction with objects and people for their cognitive development.
Another theory that helped establish best practices in early childhood education is Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory. Vygotsky believed that children learn through social interactions within a cultural context (Bredekam, 2016). The key concepts of this theory are the zone of proximal development, private speech, scaffolding, and language in the learning context (Cade et al., 2022). Regarding best practices, this theory posits that make-believe play is the core activity in the development of children aged 2-5 years (Bredekam, 2016). Pretend play helps children take another person’s perspective and aids in developing language and literacy skills (Allee-Herndon et al., 2022; Bredekam, 2016). This theory also supports DAP by suggesting that educators should teach children in the zone of proximal development, meaning that the tasks assigned to them should be challenging enough to foster learning.
Examples of Best Practices
One best practice for early childhood education is knowing and following children’s developmental stages. A historical example of this practice is a school founded by Johann Pestalozzi (1746–1827), an educator who promoted the view of the “whole child,” implying that different aspects of children’s development are closely interrelated (Bredekam, 2016, p. 43). Pestalozzi believed that children should learn step by step, without advancing through developmental stages before mastering a particular essential skill (Bredekam, 2016). This idea is supported by current research that disapproves of the recent trend for a push-down approach to early childhood education under which what was previously taught to older children is taught to younger ones. In particular, the study by Cade et al. (2022) revealed that some toddler and preschool teachers use age-inappropriate teaching methods such as a great amount of teacher-imposed seatwork, which leads to children’s emotional stress because they are pushed too quickly through their developmental stages. When teachers fail to follow developmental stages in their practice, they hinder children’s proper development, and their actions may be considered unethical as per the NAEYC’s Code of Ethical Conduct.
Another best practice is engaging children in purposeful play. A historical example of this practice is the classrooms set up by Friedrich Froebel, who emphasized the importance of children’s free play but, at the same time, used specific materials to guide it (Bredekam, 2016). Froebel created gifts and occupations – materials and planned experiences intended to develop specific skills in children (Bredekam, 2016). The role of the teacher in the classroom was to observe and nurture children but not interfere with their natural growth (Bredekam, 2016). Froebel’s approach to teaching young children is supported by evidence suggesting that children aged 2-7 years learn the most effectively through play-based hands-on interactions with the physical and social environment (Cade et al., 2022). Allee-Herndon et al. (2022) also found that children showed better outcomes in literacy learning than their counterparts in the didactic classroom. These findings suggest that teachers in early childhood education should base most of their classroom activities on the purposeful play. It means that they should encourage children to choose playful activities freely and guide them along the way to promote their learning.
One final best practice is organizing the classroom environment in a way that fosters play and learning. An example of this practice is the classroom arranged by Maria Montessori. Although Montessori’s philosophy rejected play as an essential means of children’s education, the classrooms she established can be considered a best practice. For example, she furnished them with child-size tables and chairs, as well as arranged materials on open shelves so that children could easily access them (Bredekam, 2016). Montessori’s classroom environment seems to be consistent with the DAP approach. According to DAP, the classroom should have clearly defined interest areas, quiet and noisy areas should be separated from each other, and all the necessary equipment should be convenient for children (Cade et al., 2022). Thus, it is best practice for teachers to plan not only activities but also the classroom environment. The classroom arrangement should be appropriate for children and facilitate their learning.
Summary of Findings
Teachers in early childhood education should be guided by the DAP approach in their work. Under this method, they should use teaching ways appropriate to children’s age, interests, and cultural context. The theories that helped establish best practices in the field include Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory and Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory. These theories suggest that children learn from interactions with the physical and social environment and need to complete challenging but attainable tasks for successful development. The best practices discussed in the paper include adjusting teaching methods to children’s development stages, incorporating purposeful play in teaching, and arranging the classroom in a way that fosters learning. These practices are important for children because they produce substantial learning outcomes, maintain children’s physical and emotional well-being, and do not force the curriculum on children. With these practices, children are not left to themselves and are not put under stress by teacher-imposed activities; instead, they can learn through freely interacting with the carefully designed environment and playing under the teacher’s guidance.
Allee-Herndon, K. A., Roberts, S. K., Hu, B., Clark, M. H., & Stewart, M. L. (2022). Let’s talk play! Exploring the possible benefits of play-based pedagogy on language and literacy learning in two title I kindergarten classrooms. Early Childhood Education Journal, 50(1), 119-132.
Bredekamp, S. (2016). Effective practices in early childhood education: Building a foundation (3rd ed.). Pearson.
Cade, J., Wardle, F., & Otter, J. (2022). Toddler and preschool teachers’ beliefs and perceptions about the use of developmentally appropriate practice. Cogent Education, 9(1), 1-25.