Principles of Child Development and Learning and Implications That Inform Practice (2022)

NAEYC’s guidelines and recommendations for developmentally appropriate practice are based on the following nine principles and their implications for early childhood education professional practice. These principles reflect an extensive research base that is only partially referenced here.13Because these principles are interrelated, this linear list does not fully represent their overall complexity.

  • Development and learning are dynamic processes that reflect the complex interplay between a child’s biological characteristics and the environment, each shaping the other as well as future patterns of growth.

    Advances in neuroscience over the last two decades have provided new insights regarding the processes of early brain development and their long-term implications for development and learning. The findings provide robust evidence supporting the importance of high-quality early learning experiences for young children for promoting children’s lifelong success.

    Neural connections in the brain—which are the basis for all thought, communication, and learning—are established most rapidly in early childhood.14The processes of forming new neural connections and pruning the neural connections that are not used continue throughout a person’s lifespan but are most consequential in the first three years.15When 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. These “serve and return” interactions shape the brain’s architecture.16They also help educators and others “tune in” to the infant and better respond to the infant’s wants and needs.

    The interplay of biology and environment, present at birth, continues through the preschool years and primary grades (kindergarten through grade 3). This has particular implications for children who experience adversity. In infancy, for example, a persistent lack of responsive care results in the infant experiencing chronic stress that may negatively impact brain development and may delay or impair the development of essential systems and abilities, including thinking, learning, and memory, as well as the immune system and the ability to cope with stress.17Living in persistent poverty can also generate chronic stress that negatively affects the development of brain areas associated with cognitive and self-regulatory functions.18

    No group is monolithic, and data specific to communities provides a deeper understanding of children’s experiences and outcomes. It is important to recognize that although children of all races and ethnicities experience poverty and other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), Black and Latino/a children, as well as children in refugee and immigrant families, children in some Asian-American families, and children in Native American families, have been found to be more likely to experience ACEs than White non-Latino/a and other Asian-American populations of children,19reflecting a history of systemic inequities.20Moreover, racism itself must be recognized not only for its immediate and obvious impacts on children, but also for its long-term negative impacts, in which the repetitive trauma created by racism can predispose individuals to chronic disease.21It should be noted that these stressors and trauma affect adults as well as children, including family members and early childhood educators themselves, who, despite their skills and importance, often earn wages that place them into poverty.

    Some children appear to be more susceptible than others to the effects of environmental influence—both positive and negative—reflecting individual differences at play. For children facing adverse circumstances, including trauma, the buffering effects of caring, consistent relationships—with family and other community members but also in high-quality early childhood programs—are also important to note.22This emerging science emphasizes the critical importance of early childhood educators in providing consistent, responsive, sensitive care and education to promote children’s development and learning across the full birth-through-8 age span. The negative impacts of chronic stress and other adverse experiences can be overcome. High-quality early childhood education contributes substantially to children’s resilience and healthy development.

  • All domains of child development—physical development, cognitive development, social and emotional development, and linguistic development (including bilingual or multilingual development), as well as approaches to learning—are important; each domain both supports and is supported by the others.

    Early childhood educators are responsible for fostering children’s development and learning in all these domains as well as in general learning competencies and executive functioning, which include attention, working memory, self-regulation, reasoning, problem solving, and approaches to learning. There is considerable overlap and interaction across these domains and competencies. For example, sound nutrition, physical activity, and sufficient sleep all promote children’s abilities to engage in social interactions that, in turn, stimulate cognitive growth. Children who experience predictable, responsive relationships and responsive interactions with adults also tend to demonstrate improved general learning competencies and executive functioning.23

    Changes in one domain often impact other areas and highlight each area’s importance. For example, as children begin to crawl or walk, they gain new possibilities for exploring the world. This mobility in turn affects both their cognitive development and their ability to satisfy their curiosity, underscoring the importance of adaptations for children with disabilities that limit their mobility. Likewise, language development influences a child’s ability to participate in social interaction with adults and other children; such interactions, in turn, support further language development as well as further social, emotional, and cognitive development. Science is clear that children can learn multiple languages as easily as one, given adequate exposure and practice, and this process brings cognitive advantages.24In groups in which children speak different home languages, educators may not be able to speak each language, but they can value and support maintaining all languages.25

    A growing body of work demonstrates relationships between social, emotional, executive function, and cognitive competencies26as well as the importance of movement and physical activity.27These areas of learning are mutually reinforcing and all are critical in educating young children across birth through age 8. Intentional teaching strategies, including, and particularly, play (both self-directed and guided), address each domain. Kindergartens and grades 1-3 tend to be considered elementary or primary education, and, as such, may have increasingly prioritized cognitive learning at the expense of physical, social, emotional, and linguistic development. But integrating cognitive, emotional, social, interpersonal skills and self-regulatory competencies better prepares children for more challenging academic content and learning experiences.28In brief, the knowledge base documents the importance of a comprehensive curriculum and the interrelatedness of the developmental domains for all young children’s well-being and success.

  • Play promotes joyful learning that fosters self-regulation, language, cognitive and social competencies as well as content knowledge across disciplines. Play is essential for all children, birth through age 8.

    Play (e.g., self-directed, guided, solitary, parallel, social, cooperative, onlooker, object, fantasy, physical, constructive, and games with rules) is the central teaching practice that facilitates young children’s development and learning. Play develops young children’s symbolic and imaginative thinking, peer relationships, language (English and/or additional languages), physical development, and problem-solving skills. All young children need daily, sustained opportunities for play, both indoors and outdoors. Play helps children develop large-motor and fine-motor physical competence, explore and make sense of their world, interact with others, express and control their emotions, develop symbolic and problem-solving abilities, and practice emerging skills. Consistently, studies find clear links between play and foundational capacities such as working memory, self-regulation, oral language abilities, social skills, and success in school.29

    Indeed, play embodies the characteristics of effective development and learning described in principles 4 and 5—active, meaningful engagement driven by children’s choices. Researchers studying the pedagogy of play have identified three key components:choice(the children’s decisions to engage in play, as well as decisions about its direction and its continuation),wonder(children’s continued engagement as they explore, gather information, test hypotheses, and make meaning), anddelight(the joy and laughter associated with the pleasure of the activity, making discoveries, and achieving new things).30Play also typically involves social interaction with peers and/or adults.

    Although adults can be play partners (for example, playing peekaboo with an infant) or play facilitators (by making a suggestion to extend the activity in a certain way), the more that the adult directs an activity or interaction, the less likely it will be perceived as play by the child. When planning learning environments and activities, educators may find it helpful to consider a continuum ranging from children’s self-directed play to direct instruction.31Neither end of the continuum is effective by itself in creating a high-quality early childhood program. Effective, developmentally-appropriate practice does not mean simply letting children play in the absence of a planned learning environment, nor does it mean predominantly offering direct instruction. In the middle of the continuum is guided play. Educators create learning environments that reflect children’s interests; they provide sustained time and opportunities for children to engage in self-directed play (individually and in small groups). Educators also strategically make comments and suggestions and ask questions to help move children toward a learning goal, even as children continue to lead the activity.32

    Guided play gives educators opportunities to use children’s interests and creations to introduce new vocabulary and concepts, model complex language, and provide children with multiple opportunities to use words in context in children’s home languages as well as in English. These meaningful and engaging experiences help children—including those in kindergarten and the primary grades—build knowledge and vocabulary across subject areas and in purposeful contexts (which is more effective than memorization of word lists).33

    Despite evidence that supports the value of play, not all children are afforded the opportunity to play, a reality which disproportionately affects Black and Latino/a children.34Play is often viewed as being at odds with the demands of formal schooling, especially for children growing up in under-resourced communities.35In fact, the highly didactic, highly controlling curriculum found in many kindergarten and primary grades, with its narrow focus on test-focused skill development, is unlikely to be engaging or meaningful for children; it is also unlikely to build the broad knowledge and vocabulary needed for reading comprehension in later grades. Instead, the lesson children are likely to learn is that they are not valued thinkers or successful learners in school. For example, studies suggest that students who are taught math primarily through memorization and rote learning are more than a year behind those who have been taught by relating math concepts to their existing knowledge and reflecting on their own understanding.36

    Even if not called play, cross-curricular and collaborative approaches such as project-based learning, inquiry learning, or making and tinkering share characteristics of playful learning.37Giving children autonomy and agency in how they approach problems, make hypotheses, and explore potential solutions with others promotes deeper learning and improves executive functioning.38In sum, self-directed play, guided play, and playful learning, skillfully supported by early childhood educators, build academic language, deepen conceptual development, and support reflective and intentional approaches to learning—all of which add up to effective strategies for long-term success.

  • Although general progressions of development and learning can be identified, variations due to cultural contexts, experiences, and individual differences must also be considered.

    A pervasive characteristic of development is that children’s functioning, including their play, becomes increasingly complex—in language, cognition, social interaction, physical movement, problem solving, and virtually every other aspect. Increased organization and memory capacity of the developing brain make it possible for children to combine simple routines into more complex strategies with age.39Despite these predictable changes in all domains, the ways that these changes are demonstrated and the meanings attached to them will vary in different cultural and linguistic contexts. For example, in some cultures, children may be encouraged to satisfy their growing curiosity by moving independently to explore the environment; in other cultures, children may be socialized to seek answers to queries within structured activities created for them by adults.40In addition, all children learn language through their social interactions, but there are important distinctions in the process for monolingual, bilingual, and multilingual children.41Rather than assuming that the process typical of monolingual children is the norm against which others ought to be judged, it is important for educators to recognize the differences as variations in strengths (rather than deficits) and to support them appropriately.42

    Development and learning also occur at varying rates from child to child and at uneven rates across different areas for each child. Children’s demonstrated abilities and skills are often fluid and may vary from day to day based on individual or contextual factors. For example, because children are still developing the ability to direct their attention, a distraction in the environment may result in a child successfully completing a puzzle one day but not the next. In addition, some regression in observed skills is common before new developments are fully achieved.43For all of these reasons, the notion of “stages” of development has limited utility; a more helpful concept may be to think of waves of development that allow for considerable overlap without rigid boundaries.44

  • Children are active learners from birth, constantly taking in and organizing information to create meaning through their relationships, their interactions with their environment, and their overall experiences.

    Even as infants, children are capable of highly complex thinking.45Using information they gather through their interactions with people and things as well as their observations of the world around them, they quickly create sophisticated theories to build their conceptual understanding. They recognize patterns and make predictions that they then apply to new situations. Infants appear particularly attuned to adults as sources of information, underscoring the importance of consistent, responsive caregiving to support the formation of relationships.46Cultural variations can be seen in these interactions, with implications for later development and learning. For example, in some cultures, children are socialized to quietly observe members of the adult community and to learn by pitching in (often through mimicking the adults’ behaviors).47In other cultures, adults make a point of getting a child’s attention to encourage one-on-one interactions. Children socialized to learn through observing may quietly watch others without asking for help, while those socialized to expect direct interaction may find it difficult to maintain focus without frequent adult engagement.

    Throughout the early childhood years, young children continue to construct knowledge and make meaning through their interactions with adults and peers, through active exploration and play, and through their observations of people and things in the world around them. Educators recognize the importance of their role in creating a rich, play-based learning environment that encourages the development of knowledge (including vocabulary) and skills across all domains. Educators understand that children’s current abilities are largely the result of the experiences—the opportunities to learn—that children have had. As such, children with disabilities (or with the potential for a disability) have capacity to learn; they need educators who do not label them or isolate them from their peers and who are prepared to work with them and their families to develop that potential.

    In addition to learning language and concepts about the physical phenomena in the world around them, children learn powerful lessons about social dynamics as they observe the interactions that educators have with them and other children as well as peer interactions. Well before age 5, most young children have rudimentary definitions of their own and others’ social identities that can include awareness of and biases regarding gender and race.48

    Early childhood educators need to understand the importance of creating a learning environment that helps children develop social identities which do not privilege one group over another. They must also be aware of the potential for implicit bias that may prejudice their interactions with children of various social identities.49Educators must also recognize that their nonverbal signals may influence children’s attitudes toward their peers. For example, one recent study found that children will think a child who receives more positive nonverbal signals from a teacher is perceived as a “better” or “smarter” reader than a child who receives more negative nonverbal signals, regardless of that child’s actual reading performance.50

  • Children’s motivation to learn is increased when their learning environment fosters their sense of belonging, purpose, and agency. Curricula and teaching methods build on each child’s assets by connecting their experiences in the school or learning environment to their home and community settings.

    This principle is drawn from the influential reportHow People Learn IIand is supported by a growing body of research that affirms principles espoused more than 100 years ago by John Dewey.51The sense of belonging requires both physical and psychological safety. Seeing connections with home and community can be a powerful signal for children’s establishing psychological safety; conversely, when there are few signs of connection for children, their psychological safety is jeopardized. It is important for children to see people who look like them across levels of authority, to hear and see their home language in the learning environment, and to have learning experiences that are both culturally and linguistically affirming and responsive.52

    Equally important is encouraging each child’s sense of agency. Opportunities for agency—that is, the ability to make and act upon choices about what activities one will engage in and how those activities will proceed—must be widely available for all children, not limited as a reward after completing other tasks or only offered to high-achieving students. Ultimately, motivation is a personal decision based on the learner’s determination of meaningfulness, interest, and engagement.53Educators can promote children’s agency and help them feel motivated by engaging them in challenging yet achievable tasks that build on their interests and that they recognize as meaningful and purposeful to their lives. Studies have found that some children are denied opportunities to exercise agency because they are mistakenly deemed unable to do so.54For educators, supporting a child’s agency can be especially challenging when they do not speak the same language as the child or are not able to understand a child’s attempts to express solutions or preferences. In these cases, nonverbal cues and/or technology-assistive tools may be helpful as the educator also works to address the communication barrier.

    As noted earlier regarding brain development, 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. Beginning in infancy, educators who follow children’s lead in noticing their interests and responding with an appropriate action and conversation (including noting when interest wanes) are helping children develop self-confidence and an understanding that their actions make a difference. Educators can involve children in choosing or creating learning experiences that are meaningful to them, helping them establish and achieve challenging goals, and reflecting on their experiences and their learning. Educators can also intentionally build bridges between children’s interests and the subject matter knowledge that will serve as the foundation for learning in later grades.

  • Children learn in an integrated fashion that cuts across academic disciplines or subject areas. Because the foundations of subject area knowledge are established in early childhood, educators need subject-area knowledge, an understanding of the learning progressions within each subject area, and pedagogical knowledge about teaching each subject area’s content effectively.

    Based on their knowledge of what is meaningful and engaging to each child, educators design the learning environment and its activities to promote subject area knowledge across all content areas as well as across all domains of development. Educators use their knowledge of learning progressions for different subjects, their understanding of common conceptions and misconceptions at different points on the progressions, and their pedagogical knowledge about each subject area to develop learning activities that offer challenging but achievable goals for children that are also meaningful and engaging. These activities will look very different for infants and toddlers than for second- and third-graders and from one community of learners to another, given variations in culture and context. Across all levels and settings, educators can help children observe and, over time, reflect about phenomena in the world around them, gain vocabulary, and build their conceptual understanding of the content of subjects across all disciplines.

    Recognizing the value of the academic disciplines, an interdisciplinary approach that considers multiple areas together is typically more meaningful than teaching content areas separately. This requires going beyond superficial connections. It means “making rich connections among domain and subject areas, but allowing each to retain its core conceptual, procedural, and epistemological structures.”55It is, therefore, important that educators have a good understanding of the core structures (concepts and language) for all the academic subject areas so that they can communicate them in appropriate ways to children.

    Educators shape children’s conceptual development through their use of language. For example, labeling objects helps young children form conceptual categories; statements conveyed as generic descriptions about a category are especially salient to young children and, once learned, can be resistant to change.56It is also important for educators to monitor their language for potential bias. For example, educators who frequently refer to “boys” and “girls” rather than “children” emphasize binary gender distinctions that exclude some children. Educators can also encourage children’s continued exploration and discovery through the words they use. For example, when given an object, children are more likely to engage in creative explorations of that object when they are provided with more open-ended guidance versus when they are given specific information about what the object was designed to do.

    From infancy through age 8, proactively building children’s conceptual and factual knowledge, including academic vocabulary, is essential because knowledge is the primary driver of comprehension. The more children (and adults) know, the better their listening comprehension and, later, reading comprehension. By building knowledge of the world in early childhood, educators are laying the foundation that is critical for all future learning.57All subject matter can be taught in ways that are meaningful and engaging for each child.58The notion that young children are not ready for academic subject matter is a misunderstanding of developmentally appropriate practice.

  • Development and learning advance when children are challenged to achieve at a level just beyond their current mastery and when they have many opportunities to reflect on and practice newly acquired skills.

    Human beings, especially young children, are motivated to understand or do what is just beyond their current understanding or mastery. Drawing upon the strengths and resources each child and family brings, early childhood educators create a rich learning environment that stimulates that motivation and helps to extend each child’s current skills, abilities, and interests. They make use of strategies to promote children’s undertaking and mastering of new and progressively more advanced challenges. They also recognize the potential for implicit bias to lead to lowered expectations, especially for children of color,59and actively work to avoid such bias.

    Educators contribute significantly to the child’s development by providing the support or assistance that allows the child to succeed at a task that is just beyond their current level of skill or understanding. This includes emotional support as well as strategies such as pointing out salient details or providing other cues that can help children make connections to previous knowledge and experiences.60As children make this stretch to a new level in a supportive context, they can go on to use the skill independently and in a variety of contexts, laying the foundation for the next challenge. Provision of such support, or scaffolding, is a key feature of effective teaching. Pairing children can be an effective way to support peer learning in which children with different abilities can scaffold each other.61

    Children need to feel successful in new tasks a significant proportion of the time to promote their motivation and persistence.62Confronted by repeated failure, most children will simply stop trying. Repeated opportunities to practice and consolidate new skills and concepts are also essential for children to reach the threshold of mastery at which they can go on to use this knowledge or skill, applying it in new situations. Play (especially in intentionally designed environments with carefully selected materials) provides young children with opportunities to engage in this type of practice.

    Educators foster learning for a group of children by setting challenging, achievable goals for each child, building on the combined funds of knowledge and cultural assets of the children in the group. Providing the right amount and type of scaffolding requires general knowledge of child development and learning, including familiarity with the paths and sequences that children are known to follow in specific skills, concepts, and abilities. Also essential is deep knowledge of each child, based on what the teacher has learned from close observation and from the family about the individual child’s interests, skills, and abilities and about practices of importance to the family. Both sets of knowledge are critical to matching curriculum and teaching experiences to each child’s emerging competencies in ways that are challenging but not frustrating.

    Encouraging children to reflect on their experiences and learning and to revisit concepts over time is also an important strategy for educators. The curriculum should provide both breadth and depth with multiple opportunities to revisit concepts and experiences, rather than rapidly progressing through a wide but shallow set of experiences. Picture books and other learning materials that depict communities and situations relevant to children’s lives can be useful starting points for such reflection. Group projects with documentation, including photos, videos, child artwork and representations, child dictations, and/or children’s writing, are also important tools for encouraging reflection and for revisiting concepts over time.63

    Tiered intervention approaches can be helpful in identifying children who might benefit from additional instruction or support.64These approaches, often in collaboration with early childhood special educators and early interventionists, are most effective when they are implemented in a way that is continuous, flexible, dynamic, and focused on the range of critical skills and proficiencies children need to develop and to enable their full participation in the classroom/group community.

  • Used responsibly and intentionally, technology and interactive media can be valuable tools for supporting children’s development and learning.

  • Young children live in a digital era in which technology and interactive media are pervasive. Given rapid changes in the types and uses of new media, the knowledge base of their effects on children’s development and learning continues to grow and shift. Emerging evidence suggests a number of cautions, including concerns about negative associations between excessive screen time and childhood obesity as well as negative impacts on toddlers’ performance on measures of fine motor, communication, and social skills.65There is no evidence that development is enhanced when children younger than age 2 independently use devices with screen media.66Keeping these cautions in mind, technology and interactive media can help to support developmentally appropriate practice. For example, technology and interactive media can facilitate communication between families, children, and teachers. It can also support learning, comprehension, and communication across language differences and provide adaptations that support inclusion of children with disabilities. The use of digital media can facilitate reflection through documentation and formative assessment by children, educators, and families. The use of media can also provide isolated children (for example, children with health problems that prevent them from participating in group settings or those with less well-developed social skills) with opportunities to engage effectively with peers.67

    Effective uses of technology and media by children are active, hands-on, engaging, and empowering; give children control; provide adaptive scaffolds to help each child progress in skills development at their individual pace; and are used as one of many options to support children’s learning. Technology and interactive media should expand children’s access to new content and new skills; they should not replace opportunities for real, hands-on experiences.68When truly integrated, uses of technology and media become normal and transparent—the child or the educator is focused on the activity or exploration itself, not the technology. Readers are encouraged to review the NAEYC/Fred Rogers Centerposition statement on the use of technologyfor more information on this topic.

    Top Articles

    Latest Posts

    Article information

    Author: Annamae Dooley

    Last Updated: 12/08/2022

    Views: 6168

    Rating: 4.4 / 5 (65 voted)

    Reviews: 88% of readers found this page helpful

    Author information

    Name: Annamae Dooley

    Birthday: 2001-07-26

    Address: 9687 Tambra Meadow, Bradleyhaven, TN 53219

    Phone: +9316045904039

    Job: Future Coordinator

    Hobby: Archery, Couponing, Poi, Kite flying, Knitting, Rappelling, Baseball

    Introduction: My name is Annamae Dooley, I am a witty, quaint, lovely, clever, rich, sparkling, powerful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.