What Does Developmentally Appropriate Mean?

What's developmentally appropriate for one child may not be for another.

Kindergarteners in a classroom.
Kindergarteners in a classroom. Maskot/Getty Images

The term "developmentally appropriate" refers to the practice of making curriculum based on what students are able to do cognitively, physically and emotionally at a certain age. Of course, not all children develop at the same rate, so often there’s a range of abilities that are considered developmentally appropriate for each age.

For instance, kindergartners should be able to skip, walk up steps, count objects, and be able to share with other children.

First graders will begin to develop the ability to see patterns in words and numbers, have the motor skills to grip a pencil and be able to better respond in social situations.

As they grow older, barring a physical or learning disability, children will be expected to progress in cognitive and physical development, be ready to take on more responsibility, have more self-control and be able to interact socially with peers, and be figuring out how to understand more complex concepts.

But not every first-grader can write his or her name, even if he or she can hold a pencil and write letters. So developing lesson plans and activities that incorporate the different learning styles and skill levels of all students can be a challenge in a traditional classroom environment.

Developmentally appropriate practice, or DAP as some educators refer to it, may mean something very different even among children in the same classroom.

In the best-case scenario, teachers are able to personalize the way they teach the same concept to each child. The goal of using DAP techniques is to give young children an ideal learning environment.

There are three main areas to consider when tailoring developmentally-appropriate curriculum, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

First, knowing what is expected at each stage of a young child's development is important, and informs decisions about best practices.

Another key factor is knowing what is appropriate for each individual child. Watching children in play activity can give important insights into their progress and abilities. The NAEYC also strongly recommends basing decisions about what is developmentally appropriate on a child's cultural and family background.

Most curricula use a few guidelines to determine developmentally appropriate practices. They include allowing children to explore their environment, and getting hands-on experience in learning activities with little supervision or direction. There should be a balance between group activity and solo activity, very important for children who are introverted or easily overwhelmed. A balance between active, high energy activity and quiet, thoughtful activity also is important.

Several learning theories are based on of incorporating developmentally appropriate learning, including the Montessori method and Waldorf Schools.

Montessori schools, based on the teachings of Dr. Maria Montessori, are largely child-driven, while Waldorf schools are teacher-driven. Both are based on the principle of educating the whole child.

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