DAP: What Does it Mean to Use Developmentally Appropriate Practice?

It’s occurred to me that I’ve used the term DAP a lot around here lately, and that it’s a term that warrants a full discussion in itself.   This is a term you can take an entire series of courses on, but here’s my best attempt to get you the basics — quick and dirty!  I’m hoping this will serve as a reference point for more discussions!

DAP, or Developmentally Appropriate Practice, encompasses a wider set of beliefs and practices, which are professed by many experts in the field of early education and child development to be “best practice” for teaching young children, from birth to 8.  According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), DAP encourages teachers to make choices about education based on sound knowledge of child development and learning processes while taking into account individual differences and needs, as well as social and cultural constructs.  Sounds like a reasonable expectation right?

  What this means, is that teachers need to be free to make decisions based on what children need developmentally (generalized by age and stage), individually, and culturally to make the most of their educational experiences.  This implies highly trained teachers with an appropriate amount of autonomy.  You can’t very well create a one-size-fits-all approach, implement it across the board, and call it DAP because the entire philosophy implies an attention not only to general developmental levels, but those of individuals as well.

According to Carol Copple and Sue Bredekamp, authors of Basics of Developmentally Appropriate Practice, teachers who practice DAP meet learners where they are (not necessarily where they should be) and take into consideration all the developmental areas of the whole child (physical, emotional, social, cognitive).  They provide learning opportunities that are challenging yet achievable, working within the ZPD.  And they recognize learners as individuals, with different needs, backgrounds, and stores of experiences.  More succinctly, they state:

“Developmentally appropriate practice refers to teaching decisions that vary with and adapt to the age, experience, interests, and abilities of individual children within a given age range.” (pg7)

DAP is a way of teaching that focuses on how children learn best.  And it’s something that policymakers would do well to become more aware of.  Ignoring DAP in an effort to “get ahead” is generally counterproductive because it ignores the way children are naturally wired to develop.  It replaces in-born motivation and inquisitiveness with mandates no 5-year-old can understand or care about.  Considering DAP while creating policy, curriculum, and individual learning environments yields the best results because it is based on what is known through research and observation and recognized widely in the field of early education as best teaching practices.  It is built from what we know about how kids learn.

So how do kids learn best? 

Again from Copple and Bredekamp’s book, children need:

    • Relationships with responsive adults
    • Active, hands-on involvement
    • Meaningful experiences
    • Opportunities to construct their understanding of the world (a process supported by the three previous constructs)

So what would you see in a DAP learning environment? 

Teaching would take place in a variety of formats.  It’s woven into every aspect of the environment from procedures and environment, to experiences, activities, and even moments of direct instruction.  In Copple and Bredekamp’s book, they outline four learning formats where teachers can implement a variety of teaching strategies.  They are:

  • Large groups
  • Small groups
  • Play and engagement in learning centers
  • Daily routines

Each format provides a different opportunity for teaching, learning, and discovering together.  Within the variety of teaching formats, strategies, and particular activities, practitioners of DAP promote the health and development of the whole child, not just the aspects measured on the standardized tests.  Copple and Bredekamp, as well as NAEYC, promote attention to:

  • social-emotional development
  • language development
  • literacy development
  • mathematics
  • technology and scientific inquiry and knowledge
  • understanding ourselves and our communities
  • creative expression and appreciation for the arts
  • physical development and physical skills

These areas of development are interrelated and many are often supported with the same activity.  For example, painting at the easel may promote physical development (motor skills), creative expression and appreciation for the arts, social-emotional development (if painting to express feelings), and language development (if discussing the painting with a thoughtful teacher).  So as you can see, the notion that a developmentally appropriate approach can be pitted against an “academic” approach is really nonsensical.  The method of DAP certainly yields academic understandings, but the method of instruction may take on a different (and I would say more appropriate and effective) form.

What it Boils Down To

In case I haven’t bombarded you with enough bullet lists, here are the basic principles of child development that guide the decisions of practitioners of DAP, outlined by NAEYC and paraphrased by me from their position statement (linked below).  If  all educators – teachers and parents alike – and all policymakers would agree to these precepts, I would be a very happy girl, and our children would reap all the benefits.  These tenets are based on the intentionality that is central to DAP.  That teachers are intentional in their teaching, making decisions based on these researched and practiced beliefs is the central premise for DAP:

  1. All domains of child development (social, emotional, physical, cognitive) are important and interrelated.
  2. Many aspects of child development follow a consistent documented progression, with later skills and proficiencies building upon the others already acquired.
  3. Rates of development vary from child to child and even vary between domains of development within the individual child.
  4. Development and learning takes place within the dynamic interaction of both biological maturation and personal experience.
  5. Early experiences have profound effects, and there are optimal periods for certain types of learning and development.
  6. Development builds towards greater complexity, self-regulation, and representational thinking capabilities.
  7. Children learn best within caring and positive relationships with adults and peers.
  8. Development and learning occur in and are  influenced by society and culture.
  9. Children are always seeking to understand the world around them. They learn in a variety of ways and therefore a variety of teaching methods and learning experiences should be offered to reach those different learning styles.
  10. Play is an important vehicle for developing self-regulation as well as social, language, and cognitive development.
  11. Development and learning are advanced when children are challenged just above their competency and when they have many opportunities to practice new skills.
  12. Children’s experiences shape their motivation and approach to learning (persistence, initiative, flexibility) and these dispositions in turn influence their learning and development.

(You can read more about each statement in the NAEYC’s position statement linked below.)

What is your view and/or experience with developmentally appropriate practice?  How does it shape the way you approach the education and development of the children you love and teach?

For More Information:

I wrote a whole in-depth series of posts on this very topic!  Start with this post:  On DAP and Why We Don’t Push Kids Down the Stairs

Also Read:

NAEYC: DAP Frequently Asked Questions

NAEYC: 2009 DAP Position Statement

Top photo by Anissa Thompson.

Center photo by Horton Group.



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