Education Commentary

Urging Study of ‘Developmental Appropriateness’

By Brenda Krause Eheart & Marjorie W. Steinkamp — May 03, 1989 7 min read

Life may be dramatically different for the next generation of children. It is possible that nearly every child under age 6 will spend an extended period in some type of early-childhood program before starting formal schooling.

To serve children with a broad variety of needs, educators must carefully evaluate and revise training programs for prospective early-childhood teachers.

In accordance with the recommendation of both the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession and the Holmes Group that the undergraduate major in education be abolished, we propose that students interested in early-childhood teaching pursue a liberal education, selecting a major from a wide range of options.

But we also urge that these students complete a minor that we call “developmental appropriateness.” The application of principles derived from this concept in programs for preschool-age children results in curricula and teacher responsibilities very different from the teaching paradigm traditionally used in elementary and secondary classrooms.

“Developmental appropriateness” refers to the degree to which the behaviors, expectations, and goals of a teacher or caregiver reflect an understanding of both the age group and the individual characteristics of a child.

This concept, which recognizes the multitude of influences on child development that have been documented by researchers and theorists, is not dissimilar to what is currently being taught in early-childhood teacher-education programs. In fact, in 1986, the National Association for the Education of Young Children published a position statement on developmentally appropriate practices in early-childhood education.

But the use of the concept as the subject matter for an academic minor is a new idea. Over the past nine years, we and our colleagues have been defining the theoretical underpinnings of “developmental appropriateness,” refining its application to programs for children age 5 and under, and developing courses and practica to serve as a minor for undergraduates from a variety of academic majors.

With their stress on formal instruction and worksheets, typical elementary- and secondary-education curricula are not appropriate in early-childhood programs. Such an emphasis overlooks the developmental needs of the whole child. We want young children not only to begin acquiring academic competence, but also to develop social skills and a sense of identity and self-worth; we want them to be friendly, cooperative, sensitive, independent, and physically fit, as well as bright and articulate.

Extensive use of formal instruction with preschoolers also fails to take into account how young children learn. The key to their intellectual growth, in fact, is self-directed play. Through play, learning is internalized, not merely imitated or memorized, and enjoyment of learning is stimulated. Children build foundations of competencies critical for success in the primary grades. Youngsters who are supported in self-directed play cannot fail.

And in relying too heavily on traditional methods, we may become overly concerned with long-range cognitive outcomes--children who are smarter when they are older--rather than short-term affective outcomes--children who experience happiness on a daily basis. The notion that it is better to be smart than happy is mistaken. The major goal of early-childhood education programs should be to provide happy, stress-free experiences for children.

In a developmentally appropriate setting for preschoolers, the teacher’s primary responsibility is not to direct activities with formal instruction but to create an environment where children can learn and develop by engaging in self-directed play. To plan for such play, teachers assess the needs of the group as well as the needs of individual children. Activities can be initiated spontaneously by either the teacher or the children. When the teacher proposes an activity, the children are allowed to decide whether they want to participate. Regardless of who begins the play, the teacher responds to the children’s initiatives throughout the activity, alert for opportunities to arouse curiosity and encourage exploration. This approach results in a curriculum that is spontaneous, unpredictable, and constantly changing.

The following examples from programs we observed illustrate specific ways in which traditional methods differ from developmentally appropriate approaches in the experiences they offer young children.

In a traditional program, activities for 3- and 4-year-olds were structured such that all the children were expected to do the same thing at the same time in the same way.

The children were playing with various materials of their choice. At a predetermined time, the caregiver announced it was time to clean up; all the children’s self-chosen activities were halted.

All the children sat on the rug around the teacher. She introduced the day’s lesson by describing the theme for the month: weather.

She held up picture cards of rain, snow, wind, sun, and other elements, labeling them and then quizzing the children about them. To emphasize the points she had made, the teacher moved the group to the art tables to color outlines of the sun she had prepared. The children were allowed to color with yellow crayons one, and only one, sun before they could return to free play. The next day they would color clouds, and so on, until the unit was finished.

Earlier in the day, the teacher had introduced an art project: making Thanksgiving turkeys with a tracing of the children’s fingers for the tail.

Because almost all of the children chose to make turkeys, the teacher felt that her program was promoting self-directed play. However, we believe this teacher was setting a pattern in which the children expected the teacher to find interesting things for them to do and to tell them when and how to do them.

In an early-childhood program where each of 15 turkeys has a red comb, yellow feet, and brown, red, yellow, and orange feathers, the interests and talents of the children as individuals are not being encouraged or valued. And spontaneity, an essential element for children’s happiness, has been lost.

In another program--one using developmentally appropriate principles--the teacher also felt it was worthwhile for the children to begin to label and understand their experiences with different kinds of weather. This teacher took advantage of incidental learning opportunities and created an environment that sparked curiosity.

The teacher placed a sand table outdoors in the rain, part of it covered by an umbrella and part exposed to the rain; sieves and buckets were placed outside, and pails were placed under trees and drain pipes. Children asked if they could go for a walk in the rain. In accompanying them, the teacher pointed out and labeled, in context, observable features of the environment--for example, “Wow! We have a mud and sand table on the porch.”

She also responded to their ideas and questions about rain: How does rain turn into snow? How much does it rain at the North Pole? Why do clouds get darker when it’s going to rain? If rain falls in the ocean, why is it salty, since rainwater isn’t salty? Can you sit on a cloud?

When the children and teacher returned from the walk, the teacher discussed acid rain with them. They also talked about the effects of the drought--a new vocabulary word--that had hit their state the previous summer.

In this same classroom, the children recently planned a Thanksgiving party. The party was their idea; they decided what committees were needed and who would serve on them. Three girls were chosen to be on the decorating committee. No turkeys for these girls--they chose hearts and rainbows as the theme.

The principles of child-directed play and teacher responsiveness can be applied not only in the classroom settings of day-care centers and kindergartens, but also in such nontraditional settings as programs for infants of teenage mothers or children living in shelters for abused women. In fact, the need for such programs is acute: Currently, one out of four children age 6 and under is poor; one in five is at risk of becoming a teen parent; one in six has no health insurance; and one in seven is at risk of dropping out of school.

But the application of developmentally appropriate practices in nontraditional programs is not an easy task. From day to day, the groups of children can vary widely by size and age, and attendance is erratic. In addition, because many of the children in these programs come from stressful environments, extra effort is required to help them develop trust, gain a sense of security, and experience joy.

If we are to meet the child-care and education requirements of all preschool-age children, we must have high-quality preparation for teachers in early-childhood education. The need for teachers trained in “developmental appropriateness” is urgent.

A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 1989 edition of Education Week as Urging Study of ‘Developmental Appropriateness’