Incorporating Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Pre-Kindergarten Expansions

Toddlers playing on the floor with blocks

High-quality pre-kindergarten programs help prepare young students for future academic success. Between 2014 and 2019, nearly every U.S. state received grant funding from the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to create, expand, and improve pre-kindergarten programs.

Core Considerations of Developmentally Appropriate Practice 

  • Commonality - Aspects of development that are common to all 
  • Individuality - Aspects of development unique to each child 
  • Context - Social and cultural context of learning

In conducting needs assessments for some of the states receiving these grants (e.g., California, Illinois, and Michigan), AIR determined that many of them were falling short on the National Institute for Early Education Research’s benchmarks for high quality pre-kindergarten. For example, California met only six of the 10 benchmarks in 2019. Further, a national study found that at least 40% of principals overseeing pre‑kindergarten programs lacked training in early childhood education.

Pre-kindergarten students do not learn in the same ways that older elementary students do. Recent research on brain development suggests that effective learning in the early years depends on rich, hands-on experiences. Pre-kindergarten programs should use “developmentally appropriate practice,” a teaching approach that is strength-based, play-based, and seeks to promote joy in learning. Here are five ways education leaders can incorporate research-based developmentally appropriate practice into public pre-kindergarten expansions:

1. Classrooms should include materials that promote hands-on learning, and teachers should receive training on how to use them.

When students actively engage in learning, they gain skills and knowledge. Moreover, when children are given the opportunity to learn about their world through hands on exploration, they learn to be resourceful about the materials, skills, and people they work with, leading to more flexible thinking and better problem solving. Effective teachers function as mentors: setting tasks, watching and guiding children’s efforts, and offering feedback.

Guidelines for Developmentally Appropriate Practice

  • Create a caring, equitable community of learners
  • Engage family and community
  • Assess, monitor, and document children’s learning
  • Teach in the ways that children learn best
  • Plan and implement curricula
  • Demonstrate professionalism

2. Teachers and school leaders should know how to promote playful learning, particularly through guided play.

Research shows that younger children learn best when they make meaningful connections with their activities, experience joy and surprise, or are actively engaged with others during play. Research examining the role of play in learning finds that free play alone is often insufficient to promote academic learning. Teachers need to be involved in the play, structuring games, collaborating with students, and supporting child-led play to include learning goals. For example, a teacher may modify the rules of a board game to include tasks that allow for the practice of numerical thinking and spatial skills.

3. Pre-kindergarten teachers need a solid foundation in developmental theories.

Educators who use developmentally appropriate practice know and understand developmental milestones and the sequences of development in all domains (cognitive, physical, and social emotional). They use this knowledge to determine how to appropriately challenge a child, how to structure the learning environment, and how to plan activities to support their learning. With an understanding of the multiple unique assets each child brings to their classroom, educators can use diverse educational practices and strategies based on each child’s specific developmental trajectory and needs.

4. Teachers and school leaders should know how to engage students in rich interactions to promote learning.

Rich interactions are characterized by shared interest, back-and-forth conversations, modeling language, and intentionally encouraging, responding to, and expanding students’ language. These rich interactions help young children develop their language and social skills, as social interactions stimulate the brain to be sensitive to others’ mental states.

5. Teachers and school leaders need to engage parents as partners in guiding their children’s learning and development.

Teaching practices associated with positive child outcomes include partnering with parents and adapting instruction for children of diverse backgrounds. When teachers take the time to learn about their students’ families and outside interests and share information about themselves, students feel included in their classroom community.

Developmentally appropriate practice was born of decades of research and supports teachers and school leaders in providing their youngest students with enjoyable and engaging learning experiences through guided play and rich social interactions. Providing principals and teachers with professional development in developmentally appropriate practice allows them to use their knowledge of child development to meet each student where they are and build on their strengths, promoting learning and growth.