4 Developmentally Appropriate Environment

The design of the classroom has a great deal of influence over children’s behavior and learning. Effective teachers design their classrooms keeping the following in mind:

  • Lines of Sight – It is important to be able to see all the children all of the time.
  • Traffic Flow – There should be clear pathways to navigate the room; however, too much open space encourages running. Use furniture to block off different areas of the room while leaving open passages.
  • Child Friendly – The furniture should be appropriate for the size of the children. Materials they need to access, children’s artwork, and classroom decorations should be placed where children can easily see and reach them.
  • Messy Play – Put learning centers that encourage messy play (sensory table, art center, etc.) together in an area of the room which is not carpeted.
  • Noisy Play – Put learning centers that encourage noisy play (blocks, dramatic play, etc.) together. When these learning centers are not messy, put them on carpet to help cut down on noise.
  • Quiet Play – Put learning centers that encourage quiet play (library, cozy corner, etc.) together and away from noisy learning centers. Among these, make sure to include at least one space where one or two children can retreat when they need a break from the hustle and bustle of the class.
  • Group Meetings – Create a place in the classroom where the entire class can meet. This is usually best located in a corner or off to the side of the room. Placing your group meeting location in the center of the room can encourage running. In addition to having a place where the entire class can meet, incorporate places into your room where you can meet with small groups of children.
  • Storage – Children should have storage for personal items which is within easy reach. Storage also must be available for teacher materials, including items that are potentially hazardous.

Video Moment

Watch the video “Learning Environments: Designing Spaces for Learning” by Virtual Lab School to see how a classroom can be set up to facilitate developmentally appropriate practice.

The Physical Environment as a Learning Tool

A parent who heard about the importance of following their children’s lead decided to implement this at home. A few weeks later, this parent was discussing the results with the child’s preschool teacher. The teacher had initiated the discussion because of concerns about a change in the child’s energy and alertness at school. The parent said that they had been allowing the child to make more choices at home including what to eat, what to do, and when to sleep. The child had been eating mostly sugary cereal and chips, had been spending most of the day watching television, and hadn’t been going to bed until very late.

This parent missed the important role of adults in a developmentally appropriate environment. While children are given agency and encouraged to make choices, the adults set up the environment to guide those choices. When adults fill the environment with only healthy options, the child’s choices are going to promote development and learning. Even then, the adult will sometimes need to limit a child’s choices. For example, staying in learning centers playing while lunch is occurring is not a choice that most teachers would provide. However, teachers can allow children to select which foods go on their plate, how much the child eats, and even where the child eats.

Sometimes, the children may even be given the opportunity to help select the foods which are on the menu.

Untitled image of a child playing in a daycare by Micah Sittig CC BY license via Flickr

Preparing the learning environment for exciting and effective learning is the first step in successful teaching. Taking time to select, arrange and introduce a wide variety of age-appropriate materials and equipment will enhance the quality of care. Learning centers should reflect current curricular goals and should be changed, rearranged and updated to current student interests often.

Learning centers should invite children to play with other, but there should also be a spot for quiet activities. The learning environment should be child friendly, welcoming and safe but children should also be free to explore and to use materials in novel ways.

When creating the learning environment, teachers should also consider the standards that need to be taught. Make sure that materials which promote mastery of these standards are integrated into several learning centers. Effective teachers support learning by intentionally creating an environment that scaffolds children as they practice new skills.

Video Moment

Watch the video “Using a Word Box” by High Scope US to see how a teacher intentionally designs the environment to support children’s development of writing skills.

DAP in Practice

Each month I look at the standards I want to address that month and consider how I can change learning centers to guide children towards those standards. I make sure to integrate materials related to each standard into multiple learning centers. For example, not all of my children enjoy the writing center. I increase the probability that they will work on writing skills during learning centers by adding a science notebook to the science center for children to record their observations of our class pets, by printing photos of their block structures so they can label them to record their creations, by placing sponge letters in the art center to use with paint.

To motivate the children to use these materials, I change them regularly. The children tend to flock to the items in the classroom that are new. Some materials I introduce during a group lesson so I can show the children how the material can be used. Sometimes I will play in the center with the new materials. When there is a material that is not being used, I decide whether to replace it with something else or make a change to increase the children’s interest in the material. For example, the children began to use the previously neglected writing center when I added envelopes and a mailbox to “mail” letters to classmates and staff.

The Social Environment as a Learning Tool

While the physical environment influences learning, the social environment has an equally powerful influence. Children construct their understandings about the world around them through interactions with other members of the community (both adults and peers). Thus, early childhood educators actively work to build their own relationships with each child as well as foster the development of relationships among the children. Educators regularly seek out opportunities for extended conversations with each child, including those with whom they do not share a language, through verbal and nonverbal interactions. Opportunities to play together, collaborate on investigations and projects, and talk with peers and adults enhance children’s development and learning and should be available to all children, with support as needed. (NAEYC, 2020a, p. 15)

Video Moment

Watch the video “Creating New Colors” by High Scope US to see how a teacher supports a child’s learning by playing and talking with him during learning centers.

Relationship-building is a task as important as academic instruction. “Children’s feelings of safety and security are essential for the development of higher-order thinking skills, so fostering that sense of belonging is essentially a brain-building activity”[1] Effective teachers promote strong relationships, not just with children, but also between children. This can be accomplished by creating a classroom climate that values each child, acknowledges children’s feelings, and promotes social problem solving.

When children have conflicts, teachers should not sweep in and punish the child viewed as the aggressor. To support social problem solving, they can acknowledge the strong feelings of both children and guide children towards a solution that allows them to all get what they need.

Video Moment

Watch the video “One Sword and Two Boys” by High Scope US to see a teacher guide two children through the steps needed to solve their problem.

To promote learning, adults need to be attentive and responsive to the needs of the children in their care. “When adults are sensitive and respond to an infant’s babble, cry, or

gesture, they directly support the development of neural connections that lay the foundation for children’s communication and social skills, including self-regulation”.[2] When children cry, yell, whine, or withdraw they are expressing a need. It is the teacher’s job to identify and meet that need instead of punishing what may be perceived as an inappropriate behavior.

Video Moment

Watch the video “Words Do Hurt My Feelings” by High Scope US to see a teacher meet a child’s needs while guiding her towards solving a problem with a classmate.

The Schedule

The importance of the schedule to the classroom environment may be overlooked. When the schedule is consistent and predictable, children feel secure and are more available for learning. Effective teachers incorporate predictable routines; like greeting rhymes, clean-up songs, and rest time procedures; into each day.

Video Moment

Watch the video “School Family Song: PreK Brain Smart Start Song” by Conscious Discipline in which the teacher starts the day with a routine song.

Effective teachers discuss schedule changes in advance whenever possible. At the same time, early childhood teachers need to be flexible enough to modify the schedule spontaneously when the children’s response warrants it. Extending an activity in which the children are still actively engaged or ending an activity early when they aren’t improves the children’s time on task.

While schedules vary, developmentally appropriate full-day classrooms demonstrate their commitment to play by incorporating at least 45 minutes of uninterrupted free play (learning centers) twice a day and another 45 minutes of outdoor play twice a day. In addition to free play, developmentally appropriate teachers incorporate brief large group lessons and slightly longer small group lessons. During group lessons, adults engage children in hands-on activities of the adult’s choosing. While the adult makes some of the decisions about how these lessons will progress, they also incorporate opportunities for the children to make choices.

Most developmentally appropriate classrooms will emphasize small group lessons over large group lessons. When children work in a small group, they don’t have to wait as long for a turn and receive more of the teacher’s time. In addition, activities that are very messy or need very close supervision can be more easily completed with a small group of children.\

Video Moment

Watch the video “Introduction to Small Group Time” by High Scope US to see how teachers can create developmentally appropriate small group lessons.

Putting in into Place

  • Curriculum decisions should be made based on proven developmental milestones and student needs and interests.
  • Change learning center offerings to match curricular goals.
  • If space limits the number of learning centers available at one time, rotate them depending on relevancy to current curricular topics, time of the year and student interest.
  • Invite parents to add items of interest and relevance to the learning centers as needed especially to add to the diversity of cultures represented.
  • Maintain a portfolio for each child to measure progress and note areas of strength and weakness. Make notes after daily interactions to guide lesson planning decisions.
  • Throughout the day, engage children in conversations about their activities to assess their level of understanding or need to move to a more difficult task. Make changes as necessary.
  • Open and maintain two way communication with parents. Give a daily report, either written or verbal, that highlights activities and accomplishments. Provide parents with current topics being covered in class with a prompt to spark a conversation with their child. A weekly newsletter can include topics of study, upcoming special events and highlights of events of the week.
  • Provide enough materials in learning centers to avoid conflict between children.

  1. (NAEYC, 2020a, p. 11).
  2. (NAEYC, 2020a, p. 8).


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Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) for the Preschool Environment Copyright © 2023 by Joan Hayden; Laura Hutton; and Nova Scotia Community College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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