Designing Learning Spaces for Developmentally Appropriate Practice

Designing Learning Spaces for Developmentally Appropriate Practice

In order to provide students with an effective education, early childhood educators need to utilize developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) to teach children. This teaching strategy acknowledges what children know and what they can do, while also setting reasonable goals for learning and development.

What is Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP)?

DAP is an educational approach tailored to the age, abilities, and interests of young children. This strategy emphasizes the importance of providing children with activities and experiences that are appropriate for their developmental stage. DAP also considers the cultural background, individual needs, and learning style of each child. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) supports the use of DAP as a critical approach to teach children effectively and unlock their full potential.

DAP is important for academic achievement in young children because it creates a supportive and nurturing environment that encourages children’s natural curiosity and love for learning. It focuses on building a strong foundation of social-emotional, cognitive, and physical development that sets the stage for later academic success. Moreover, DAP recognizes that children learn best when they feel safe, respected, and valued. Therefore, it emphasizes the importance of building positive relationships with children and their families, creating a sense of community and belonging, and supporting children’s emotional well-being.

Spaces for Developmentally Appropriate Practice

Using DAP to Guide Learning Space Design

A key part of using DAP is being able to observe and pinpoint the best strategies for teaching children at different ages, skill sets, and development levels. In some teaching methodologies, such as Montessori, DAP is foundational to the entire school program, since classrooms, curriculum, and teaching approaches are designed around children’s natural development. In order to successfully utilize DAP, learning spaces must be tailored to the strategies and methodologies that educators intend to use to provide a developmentally appropriate education.

In early childhood classrooms that use DAP, children are given opportunities to explore, discover, and learn through play-based activities that are designed to promote critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity. They are also encouraged to express themselves through art, music, and language, which helps to develop their communication and literacy skills.

Here are three ideas to design learning spaces with developmentally appropriate practice in mind:

1. Promote Independence

A key part of DAP is offering opportunities for active engagement through play, exploration and inquiry in ways that support the whole child. Student independence is critical to presenting students with these opportunities, so classrooms should be designed to help children be as self-reliant as possible. 

First and foremost, this means selecting classroom furnishings that are children’s size––or can be adjusted to fit children comfortably. Low seating, modular lounge seating, and adjustable desks are all good examples of child-sized furnishings. Students should also have ways to access necessary resources, tools, and materials by themselves, promoting their independence and teaching them how to manage their learning space. Using bin storage like the KIO Mobile Bin cabinet is a great option to promote independence while still maintaining order in an early childhood classroom.

2. Accessibility is Key

DAP is designed with the needs of every student in mind, including how the learning space functions for students with different physical, emotional, and intellectual needs. For instance, a learning space that is dull, stationary, and lacking crucial tools and resources would be very inaccessible to most young children. Children need tools, materials, resources, and environments that are engaging, flexible, and easy-to-use for their stage of development and personal needs. 

There are countless approaches that can be taken to make learning environments accessible to young students, but one of the most important is to make the space flexible. Young children tend to learn and develop new skills very quickly, making it crucial that their classrooms can accommodate them as they progress through different learning stages. Flexible furniture pieces that are mobile, adjustable, and/or have a variety of different purposes make it possible for a learning environment to grow and change with children as their skills and needs change throughout the year.

3. Zones for Creativity and Exploration

A foundational part of child development is learning to explore and interact with the environment, interests, and creativity. DAP in teaching helps support these needs, but an effective early childhood learning space must also directly provide opportunities for children to explore and be creative. 

One method to encourage creativity and exploration in the learning environment is to create different learning zones or stations that have all the tools, resources, and space necessary for students to engage in a variety of different activities. For instance, a makerspace or makerspace station would include a large work surface, plenty of age-appropriate supplies and tools to explore, and ideally, some organized storage to make activities more accessible. The KIO Tinker is a great example of a fully-inclusive and functional table for a makerspace station––it’s even mobile for added flexibility. Other explorative zones in an early childhood classroom may include a reading corner, an art area, a sensory-friendly space, or even a technology or presentation area.

Using Developmentally Appropriate Practice in early childhood education is crucial for fostering children’s development and academic success. It provides a foundation for children to build on as they progress through their educational journey. By designing early childhood learning environments to support DAP, students have effective spaces to reach academic goals and success!