Meeting the children where they are

Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) recognizes childhood as a unique time of life with unique opportunities to learn. Programs that respond to the interests of an individual child and the capacities of childhood maximize the capacity for learning.

Play is open-ended, hands-on learning.

“To learn a thing in life and through doing is much more developing, cultivating, and strengthening than to learn it merely through the verbal communication of ideas.”

– Friedrich Frobel

Play is highly compatible with projects that employ scientific method and which develop purposefully over a long period of time.

As children explore their world, they have the opportunity to discover the process of hypothesis to testing to conclusion. Questions such as, “Which plants will attract more butterflies?” are age-appropriate. They can be answered through observation, documentation, and analysis.


Imagine the beginning of a day in a play-based environment:
Jade arrives in the morning. In the outdoor corridor, she sees photographs and drawings of leaves, labeling their variety. Her father reads the names out loud and reminds her that there is a maple tree at the entrance to their building. They count the lobes of the maple leaf together. As Jade enters the indoor space, she hangs her coat and backpack on her hook while Dad signs in. The room has a variety of centers, each of which has been set with a palate of materials that support the day’s theme. Jade notices three: 

• the science area which includes magnifying glasses, sketch pads, and several types of leaves whose stems have soaked overnight in a dye solution that reveals their vascular systems
• the construction area which has been set with pipes that can connect with a branching structure
• the art area with materials for leaf rubbings

Jade hugs her father and then chooses the construction area. Marcus is already there and the two spend 20 minutes connecting pipes in a long line with two small branching structures to the side. The teacher watches the first 15 minutes of their work without interrupting. “I see you made your piece very long and straight here, but then made it wider with more pathways here and here,” the teacher eventually says. Jade and Marcus explain that they have built a highway for rolly-pollies. The first branching structure is a trap, but that the second structure is a place to rest. The teacher, Marcus, and Jade spend time imagining a trip in the rolly-polly highway. As she listens, the teacher is careful to notice what matters to Marcus and Jade about their construction and careful not to impose her own ideas about what the construction ‘should’ be. “I wonder,” the teacher says, “what would happen if one of our class marbles traveled the highway.” She listens to the responses of Marcus and Jade.

Discoveries expected and unexpected fill the morning! The teacher probably anticipated many of the many of the elements of learning: exposure to print, a parent modeling reading and making connections to the theme, children knowing how to care for their belongings. But children also go their own way. The teacher might have imagined the children using the pipes to create branching or networked structures. The children showed other insights: story-telling, a connection to their experience in the garden. How different would the morning have been if the teacher saw Jade and Marcus’ creation and said, “Okay, but instead of making it so long, you could use the pipes to create lots of branches.” 

The desire to learn, explore and discover is utterly natural to children. If an authority figure holds all the ‘right’ answers, it can mute that joy and undermine a child’s well-founded confidence in his/her own conclusions. 

Effective play-based environments are orderly and structured. The day has a schedule; the classroom has rules; there are instructions; courtesy is expected. In this environment, the child knows his worth and the value of others. 


“The essence of independence is to be able to do something for one’s self. Adults work to finish a task, but the child works in order to grow, and is working to create the adult, the person that is to be. Such experience is not just play… it is work he must do in order to grow up.”

– Maria Montessori

Seeing the wonder of the child's world

Observation and refection give the teachers an opportunity to extend and support the discoveries of the child:

• What did you learn?
• I noticed…
• What do you still want to know?
• What do you want to do next?
• How will you do it?

Teachers support and guide the child. By taking the time to consider the child’s interests, children take ownership of the learning.

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