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Developmentally Appropriate Care: What Does It Mean?

Joan Sprain and Diane Corrin; Reviewed by Ronald L. Pitzer, Family Sociologist

Revised July 2013 by Kathleen A. Olson, Program Director — Partnering for School Success.

The term developmentally appropriate care is commonly used by child care professionals to describe care that takes into account the level of physical, social, emotional, and intellectual development of a child.

While there is no one right way to care for children, there are guidelines that focus on how a child develops and the care that is appropriate at various stages. These guidelines help both child care providers and parents understand ways to care for children while helping them develop positive self-esteem.

The following guidelines have been developed by early childhood and child care professionals. These guidelines focus on the idea of developmental appropriateness which is defined in two parts: age appropriateness or the universal, predictable sequences of growth and change that occur in children as they go through their early years of life; and individual appropriateness or the unique growth sequence of each child with their own pattern and timing, as well as individual personality, learning style, and family background experiences.

Developmentally Appropriate Care for Infants and Toddlers

Infants and toddlers learn by experiencing the environment — by seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling, and by physically moving around. They learn a sense of trust through interaction with consistent, caring adults.

Adults not only meet physical needs but spend time holding, playing, and talking with the infant. The adult helps the infant learn by pointing out things to look at, touch, and hear.

Toileting, feeding, and dressing are taught without criticism and provide opportunities to let the child do for themselves. Homes and centers are "child-proofed" to allow the child safe exploration.

For two-year-olds, simple books, pictures, puzzles, and music are provided. Time and space for jumping, running, and dancing are arranged. Language skills are encouraged by describing to the child what the child is doing, repeating new words, and reading aloud. Adults know that children in this age group cannot understand the idea of sharing.

Developmentally Appropriate Care for Three-, Four- and Five-Year-Olds

Three-year-olds are provided with learning activities that emphasize language, large motor physical activity, and movement. Activities include puzzles and blocks, wheel toys and climbers, dramatic play acting and story telling.

Four-year-olds enjoy a greater variety of experiences and more activities like cutting paper and fabric, other art activities and cooking. They can recognize shapes, colors, and use basic math and problem-solving skills.

Some four-year-olds and most five-year-olds combine ideas, have a growing memory and are developing fine motor skills. They display a growing interest in the written language. They are developing an interest in the community and enjoy special events and trips.

Adults listen, encourage creative play, join in activities, build self-esteem, and set consistent limits.

Developmentally Appropriate Equipment and Space Guidelines

Infants benefit from the following equipment: crib, play yard, infant seat, high chair, waterproof mattress, and changing table. Infants need colorful pictures, objects they can grab and hit (such as crib gyms), and soft objects they can learn to pick up. Older infants need safe space for rolling, sitting, and crawling.

Toddlers use the same things as infants plus they need safe crawl space and room when taking those first steps. Most toddlers play alone. Look for easy ways for them to move from one space to another.

Toddlers love to explore. Good toys at this age are containers filled with blocks, pull toys, and stacking containers.

Preschoolers need more space. Play spaces should be varied. In addition, they need active as well as quiet spaces. They should also have a place to store personal items. A child-size toilet or potty chair and a way to wash their own hands are also helpful. They work both individually and in small groups and are beginning to like to be in larger groups too.

Preschoolers need a variety of toys for play. Art materials, puzzles, toys that produce sounds, and tricycles are typical equipment for this age.

Developmentally Appropriate Care to Prepare Your Child for School

Some child care centers and family child care homes promote teaching your child skills that prepare them for school. While early academic learning gives children skills, there is little evidence that children show long-term benefits in school performance. Some research shows that too much emphasis on structured learning at an early age causes children to be less interested in school.

There are, however, a number of non-academic skills your child can develop both at home and in child care to prepare them for school. These include the following:

General Features of Developmentally Appropriate Care

Child care providers that practice developmentally appropriate care have the following list of characteristics. They:


Klass, C. S. (1999). The child care provider: Promoting young children's development. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Company.

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