On Developmentally Appropriate Practice….And Why We Don’t Push Kids Down the Stairs


Toddlers can’t walk down the stairs with alternating steps.  They just can’t.  While your kindergartener bounds down the stairs taking each step in stride (or several in one super-hero bound, as mine is prone to do), your toddler will cling to the wall or rail as she takes a careful step down with one foot, then brings the other foot to that same step to stand firmly before venturing down in that same slow, tentative manner for another (step together), then another (step together), then another (step together).

It generally isn’t until at least their third year that young kids begin to master this foot-switching-feat.  It’s a skill that certainly requires experience and practice, but it’s not something we can teach an 18 month-old, even if he’s an accomplished walker.  We don’t force tiny toddlers down the stairs on alternating feet in an attempt to secure our child’s “early-alternating-foot-stair-climbing status”.  It wouldn’t serve any purpose and the child would likely only get hurt.

Alternating steps on stairs is perhaps a more obscure skill, but it is considered a developmental milestone because it’s indicative not only of a motor skill that you can watch your child perform right before your eyes, but because it’s a manifestation of the brain development that we can’t see.  Particularly necessary is the maturation of the cerebellum and corpus callosum as well as the myelination, or protein coating, of millions of tiny nerve fiber pathways that eventually all work together to make such coordination, balance, and truly sophisticated movements possible.  This process takes time!  Usually at least three years, and for some closer to four.

For some reason, we seem to be OK with this fact as a society and generally let kids build this skill as time, experience, and development do their magic. 

We don’t worry much (or even talk much) about when our child mastered this skill or compare it against when our nieces, nephews, and neighbors mastered the same task.

We don’t clamor for videos and books that promise to get our kids alternating their feet sooner, to give them an head start for all the stair-climbing that lies ahead of them.

We don’t introduce new standards that require each group of toddlers to begin alternating their feet just a bit earlier than the cohort group ahead of them.

We don’t push them down the stairs.

So why do we do it with other skills?

Why do we give young children tasks, standards, and environments that are not appropriate to their developmental readiness?  Why do we ignore the fact that the parts of their brains needed for these tasks are still under construction?  Why do we impose timelines that turn a blind eye to developmental processes and a deaf ear to individual differences?

Why do we figuratively push kids down the stairs on other skill sets, possibly causing harm and certainly creating unnecessary frustration and anxiety?

Developmentally Appropriate Practice is always appropriate.

Policies and programs will not change the facts of human development.

More Info on this Hot Topic:

Age Does Matter {NJC}

Age Does Matter: Your Questions Answered by Dr. Marcy Guddemi {NJC}

Reading at Five: Why?  {SEEN}

“Your Baby Can Read” Costs Too Much {Janet Lansbury}

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*This post launched a full series on Developmentally Appropriate Practice.  Get all the goodness here!



Filed under Building Readers, Child Development & DAP, Learning through Play and Experience

52 Responses to On Developmentally Appropriate Practice….And Why We Don’t Push Kids Down the Stairs

  1. Karen

    Amen!!!! I am a public preschool teacher and have been told by my administration to implement a schedule that I know is developmentally inappropriate for my preschoolers. Their free choice time is eliminated now. They cry and don’t want to come to school at 4 years old, and I can’t say I blame them. I hate it. How can we make these “educators” understand the value of play and developmentally appropriate practice?!
    Thanks so much for reminding me about this!

    • Catherine

      Karen, what state/district do you teach in? I’m getting my masters in early childhood education in Minnesota and notice a) a huge devalue of early childhood education, b) a big misconception of preschool/early childhood education and DAP, and c) developmentally inappropriate practices at so many places! I’ve often noticed the preschools were are pushing standards and developmentally inappropriate practices tend to be public and low-cost programs. Unfortunately, these are the programs low-income families can afford. I’m so frustrated with administration that does not have any knowledge or background of early education and child development making all these decisions that are detrimental to education! What can us educators do?

  2. I’ve shared this on Facebook, I have so much appreciation for this blog!
    I’m sharing later this week about realizing that my 26 month old’s obsession with counting and dividing is actually her way of avoiding getting a good grasp of numbers 3 and 4, but I can totally see how easy it would have been to just be excited at her “acceleration” and perhaps “help accelerate her,” rather than putting the brakes on and letting her figure out 3 and 4, and also try to divert her attention to more age-appropriate pursuits. I really try to encourage PLAY — the stuff that childhood is supposed to be about!

    • notjustcute

      Thank you so much! And you are right, open-ended, play-based activities are always a great way to go, particularly at this age.

  3. US is definitely shooting in all directions in the area of education. My husband and I often talk about how our education in Germany and former Soviet Union was so much different. We had play based kindergartens (preschools here), and formal education started at 7. At the same time, I do believe in meeting every child at the point of their need. I was an early reader (in my native Russian), and my daughter was an extremely early English reader too. She was displaying interest and enthusiasm for learning to read and picked reading at 3. I cringe at the thought of holding her back just because it is developmentally inappropriate for her to read at 3 or to do simple algebra now when she is 6.

    • notjustcute

      Thank you for adding to the conversation, Natalie! I was an early reader, as was one of my sons, both of us from an emergent literacy background. There’s not anything inherently inappropriate in learning something on the early end of the spectrum. The problem comes when we generalize that standard to others. The concept of developmentally appropriate practice takes into account developmental progressions as well as individual differences. (Essentially the opposite of some standards which seem to consider neither.) One specific example that comes to mind is a school in my area which boasts “kids reading at 3″. That may be the case very naturally for some kids, but it could be very detrimental to others who are being held to a standard that their development can not support. A child reading at 3 is not necessarily inappropriate — guaranteeing all 3 year-olds will be readers is.

      I wouldn’t rein in an enthusiastic reader either, but the practices used in that encouragement need to be appropriate to their age. The issue isn’t so much a dichotomy of “either kids should read at 3 or they shouldn’t read until 7″, it’s recognizing that there are individual differences and developmental principles at play and that kids learn best when we respect that.

      • Christine

        Thanks for adding this comment! I completely agree with you. Each child is an individual and I don’t like mass acceleration anymore than I like it when told to just let the children play. My oldest son taught himself to read and was assessed at a 3rd grade level for reading and comprehension just before his 3rd birthday. I read to him daily, but he learned on his own. There were no flash cards, etc. mixed into his learning. I homeschool him now and he thrives doing mostly play-based learned with very little book work (maybe 10 minutes a day). I hear so much advice from disgruntled doctors, who never agree with one another or with me. Many say that I should accelerate him, that he should be in a gifted program and not homeschooled (he has Asperger’s and they fear he isn’t socialized enough). While others say I should provide nothing other than pure play. He’s almost 5 years old now, and one thing I’ve learned is that neither side is right because my kid isn’t black and white. He is a whole child, who acts up when his mind isn’t stimulated…but, learns best when playing board games, doing science experiments, etc. and not when forced to sit and do worksheets. He is a truly asynchronous child in that emotionally he is a 4-year old with the motor skills of a 2-year old and intellectual abilities way above his age. My younger son is the complete opposite and I will encourage him to play and develop at his own pace. Thanks so much for your awesome post!

        • notjustcute

          ” one thing I’ve learned is that neither side is right because my kid isn’t black and white. He is a whole child” — I love that sentiment! Your son is lucky to have you as his advocate!

  4. shannon

    We frequently run up against this in swimming instruction. My three year old needs a clear description of how his body should move in the water, not pressure, shame, and ‘go-get-em’ statements. Any input from yourself or readers on finding swim instructors that use DAP?

    • notjustcute

      I don’t have any specific recommendations for you, Shannon, but do know how much I’ve appreciated my boys’ swim teachers who have used playful approaches to reach them on their level, but have also given them the appropriate challenges. For us, it’s just been about finding the right people. Good luck in your search!

  5. I didn’t know there was a term for this, but reading about it makes me appreciate my son’s preschool so much more. They focus on individual learning where each kid has his own curriculum of sorts, so that those who are quick to learn a certain area or need more time can go at different paces.

  6. Joelle Mcnichol

    Great post! I’ve never noticed our collective double standards on this skill.

    Readers in the UK who agree with this, I urge you to look up the Too Much Too Soon campaign and sign the petition. It aims to stop the current government’s changes to early years education policy which are totally inappropriate for kids development at this stage. http://www.toomuchtoosoon.org

    I’m not connected to the campaign, I just think it’s really important.

  7. Hilary

    I really like this blog post…. and then it ended! Prematurely, IMO. Anticlimactic. Give examples or… something.

    I agree with the premise, though.

    • notjustcute

      Sorry to leave you hanging, Hilary! The articles listed under “More” expand on this topic. Also, there will be more on this topic next week, so stay tuned!

  8. What a great way to get someone thinking about developmental appropriateness of skills!

  9. Dawn

    I agree… there’s something missing in this article. There are no examples, no conclusion, no call to action.

    I also agree that elementary schools, and many preschools, are shoving a developmentally inappropriate curriculum down our childrens’ throats. Some kids learn to read at 3, or even 2. I have one friend that claims he began reading at 1, but my daughter got really frustrated in Kindergarten when the teacher expected her to read and write. We worked hard over the summer, and she’s reading better now (still in the bottom reading group, but less frustrated by the work there), but I think she really needs letter writing practice–meanwhile, the school is forcing her to write sentences!

    Glossing over the basics (such as letter writing practice) and throwing our kids straight into writing sentences and stories (in Kindergarten!) is not doing them any favors. And expecting their parents to pick up the slack is not going to work for the lower-income students that are already having the hardest time in school.

    • notjustcute

      My intention with this post was to introduce the analogy and offer a few examples in the form of links (under the MORE heading — I clearly need to make that more obvious). My Wednesday posts tend to be more brief in the hopes of stimulating more connections from you, the readers, which you have done here beautifully. Your example is spot on! Thank you for adding to the discussion!

  10. I started a toddler program at a preschool in Seattle and my students were 2.5-3.5 and their parents were well intentioned but only wanted academics. It took time to make play based activities look very academic to satisfy the parents while serving the children properly. All were very high achievers themselves and couldn’t grasp that starting earlier wouldn’t give their kids an advantage. Most educators know what is developmentally appropriate but policy makers and parents aren’t on board.

    • notjustcute

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Allison. It’s true, sometimes in our role as educators, we have a responsibility to educate a lot of adults as well as the kids! Everyone at the table has the best of intentions, but our experiences and perspectives aren’t always the same. It can take a lot of extra effort to give kids the best service you know how to give, while also keeping all the grown ups satisfied!

  11. laurel

    Sorry, I’m not following your argument. You may have one, but you never go so far as to include it in your post. You ask the rhetorical question “Why do we figuratively push kids down the stairs on other skill sets, possibly causing harm and certainly creating unnecessary frustration and anxiety?” Can you please offer an example of how we figuratively push kids down the stairs? I think we’re all in agreement that “push[ing] kids down the stairs” is to be avoided. We might disagree, however, on what practices and approaches are akin to doing so. Can you offer some examples?

    • notjustcute

      Hi Laurel -
      The question was left rather open-ended to allow for individual connections, as many have done. I’ll share more specific examples next week, but there are several examples included under the heading “More”. Many of those address the pressure for very young children to read, when research supports the fact that 1 – not all children have the developmental readiness to support the task of reading at such early ages and 2 – early reading (by age 5 vs 6 or 7) is not connected to any long-term academic gains. (The bottom two links address this very well.) But beyond reading, there are many examples of a “push-down” effect in school curricula where skills are being pushed down to younger and younger students. DAP recognizes that we can only “raise expectations” to the point that developmental levels will still support the mastery of such skills. The two links entitled, “Age Matters” address this very well. I hope that helps with the types of examples you were looking for.

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  13. Oh Amanda….I love this post so much. I’m going to share this on my facebook page as I know my readers will appreciate this. We chose to keep our daughter in pre-K this year rather than placing her in the new “Transitional Kindergarten” now offered here in California for children with birthdays that fall between the old and new cut off dates. I felt my daughter would benefit more from her 3-day a week half day play based preschool program than from sitting at a desk 5 days a week being taught skills I am not sure she is ready for. I get a lot of *looks* from the moms at the park when we discuss this decision but I know we did the right thing. I don’t want to push my daughter down the stairs.

    • notjustcute

      With 4 boys, I can attest that every child is different and what is best for one is not always best for another. You will always be grateful you made decisions based on her individuality rather than always going with the most popular option. Thanks so much for your comment!

  14. Cindy

    I love this analogy.

    I was so grateful to find my girls a preschool with a master teacher of 25+ years. She taught students to wonder and think. Numbers and letters were in the class, but there was no pressure to read or write. Yet, many parents moved their children elsewhere for precisely those reasons.

    I read to both my girls since they were babies and spent some time teaching them to “read” when there were three, only to find neither was interested. They wanted to be active! They could decode, but didn’t enjoy it, so I let it go and continued reading to them. Once they got to school, they were ready and both became avid readers at the top of their classes. Pushing kids too early only makes the task terrible. Why would I want to turn them OFF to reading? This is happening too often in schools.

  15. Cate Mawby

    great post! greetings from New Zealand. Many of you sound like you would be interested in learning more about our wonderful New Zealand early childhood service called Playcentre. We are a parent-led co-operative movement that believes parents are the best first teachers of our children & offer a fully play-based, Govt funded & licensed ECE service. We are parents who do it ALL ourselves & have been, proudly, for over 60 years. Playcentre.org.nz will give you a start & maybe some inspiration for what sounds like much needed change,….

    We are in a minority position in NZ these days because the Government of the day favors parents as economic units that all need to be back in the paid workforce asap, and we rely strongly on at home parents as volunteers to run our centres.

  16. Tina

    Powerful words! Amanda, you have such fabulously vivid writing. I can’t help but wonder if there is a particular experience that prompted this post? So many others already commented on the same thoughts I had. I’ve seen the push down in action and it’s frustrating. My observation is that it can be quite brutal for children–the same as trying to make a toddler walk alternating down the stairs before they are physically capable. It surprises me that elementary teachers and administrators are not required to take child development courses as a part of their education.

    I also wonder how culture plays into this and how different cultures approach childhood differently. This summer I listened to Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bebe. She discusses how parents of young children in France talk about “awakening” and “discovery” instead of getting ahead early like British & American parents do. It seems they are influenced by Rosseau and Piaget and know who these guys are. It was really interesting as I don’t think many parents in the US even know who Piaget is let alone have the knowledge to discuss his child development theories.

    • notjustcute

      That book sounds really interesting, Tina. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Laura R.

      Just a quick note. I graduated from college in may 2011 with a teaching certificate. I took MANY child development classes. However, the standards I am given to teach were not written by me. They were written by law makers who do not have experience in child development. Teachers and administrators are doing the best we can – for the most part – with what we are given.

      • notjustcute

        So true, Laura. And one of my pet peeves. I feel that too often, qualified teachers aren’t given enough seats at the table, so to speak, in important policy discussions. As is mentioned in the SEEN article linked above, it appears we’ve fundamentally changed the way we teach and the expectations we hold in the early school years based on no research whatsoever. I worry our policymakers are making decisions based on social pressure and the salesmanship of curriculum designers, rather than basing them on developmental principles like the ones you and other qualified teachers like you have spent years learning about and implementing. But perhaps that’s a rant for another day! ;0)

  17. This is certainly fodder for thought- especially for those who design programs and curriculum for kids. We’re so busy trying to mold kids into what is deemed by society as appropriate that we often forget the physical and mental development part of the process.

  18. What an eye opener article! Reminder to self not to be pressured to rush kiddos when other parents kept on comparing and asking on my kiddos’ development! Thank you!

  19. Sue Wilkinson

    What a great article, I have been struggling to teach my daughter to blend sounds together to make a word for over a year now, she is 5 is it just a case that the brain hasn’t matured to that level yet? I feel a little less under pressure and guilty now thank you

  20. Suzanne

    Its so interesting to hear that this debate is on both sides of the Atlantic. I taught in uk schools for 7 years and now am manager of a pre-school here. Having been in schools I am keen for our pre-school to really focus on a child’s personal, social and emotional development. We have a good play based curriculum which enables children to learn about number, develop fine and gross motor skills and we introduce phonics through songs etc but what we want is for children to develop that sense of wonder and to ask ‘why’ and ‘how’. At story time we encourage good sitting and good listening skills as these are very important when they begin school and need to take in lots of information. We have had parents move children because we do not teach ‘writing’! We do! We teach children to develop the strength needed to hold a pencil and a range of fine motor skills, we finger paint so that they know where to start and finish a circle, line etc. they think that they are just playing. We work closely with the primary school next to us and the teacher asked us not to teach writing as so many children write in capitals, form letters incorrectly which is then harder to for them to show the correct formation. She told me yesterday that our children who started this year are keen and inquisitive, work really well together, have excellent manners, can listen and make valuable contributions, explain their ideas, can identify letter sounds (which is really helping their reading) and are writing letters correctly! I was so proud! We will be continuing in this way and supporting individual children to meet their needs and to help develop a lifelong love of learning.

  21. Amanda

    I can’t even tell you how much I agree with this post. I feel like so many schools are trying to get children to behave and learn like mini-adults instead of children. My youngest son started attending full-day junior kindergarten this fall, and 3 weeks into it the school was voicing concerns because once he put his underwear over his pants and when it is “line up time” he has a hard time going to his appropriate place in line. He’s 4 for crying out loud! He’s never been to daycare or anywhere where there was “structure” and we obviously don’t teach him to line up at home. I just feel like there is so much pressure on kids to all act and learn the same way.

  22. mrs. b.

    I am so happy to have had a friend send me the link to this website and so proud of you for making this information on DAP available. As an old teacher of preschoolers and teacher of teachers and parents, I beg and plead for an understanding of the importance of DAP at home and in the classroom. My goal is to write a preschool curriculum based on DAP and see if it can be adapted for use by K-12 teachers as well. Thanks again for your site.

  23. Jenny Peace

    In Australia, we too expect more and more of young children when it comes to formal learning. I urge you to consider Letterland as a vehicle for teaching phonics to young kids. In my opinion it is the only developmentally appropriate program and if used correctly, it is highly effective. The kids don’t even know they are learning as it just seems like play to them. It is highly motivating and I have used it both in classrooms and with my own kids. Love, love love Letterland and it makes so much sense to them. I plan to write an in depth blog post on it soon on my blog: http://www.littlemasterpeaces.com

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  25. Way back in the dark ages (early 1980′s) I was taught that ALL aspects of child development are important, that no one area of development outweighs another. ( the newer term is learning domains) You are so spot on Amanda! We don’t need to push at the expense of other activities, that we should focus on head to toe development. Following their natural instincts to learn, watching, knowing when a child is ready is key. Teachers must advocate for the children in their programs, to say I am not going to create a fearful learner that won’t try because I am asking too much. Instead, I am going to provide varied activities that challenge, stimulate, motivate, but don’t frustrate, targeting every area of development. Then you will have a child with a disposition to be a learner (look up Dr Lillian Katz to learn more about dispositions and learning, fascinating stuff)
    Lisa Murphy, the Ooey Gooey lady, offers a similar analogy, she says if you know a famine is coming next year, would you starve your child to get ready for it? I look forward to the series on DAP, keep up the excellent work!

  26. Love this article, so very true. I equally become frustrated and down-right mad at the obsession we have with academic learning. People don’t connect the dots between academic learning and physical development, with the first building upon the later. Isolating and rushing brain development just leaves our kids struggling. I’ll be following your page with interest from now on, many thanks.

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  29. Robyn

    Brillant article.
    There is a book I read to my kids when they were younger. We still talk about it today. It is called Leo the late bloomer. Each in their own time is the message.
    I figure that a vast majority of children will walk, talk and use the toilet by the time they are 20 so let them be, they will figure it out when they are ready. And that is not to dismiss parents who know, and believe me you do know if something is not quite right. Happy parenting, Children are a joy :)

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  32. FakeName

    I also want to add my thanks to you for this post, and opening up the discussion. My 4 year old wanted to learn the alphabet around 12 months; had it down pat by 18m. Someone in my family who is an ECE teacher announced at Christmas that year that it was “totally developmentally inappropriate” for her to know the alphabet and be able to recognize 3 letter words. I still laugh at that comment. Sure, she’s got so-called book smarts, but at the age of four-and-a-bit, I would say she is just NOW totally potty trained. She didn’t really talk until she was two and a half, and even then it was only after we’d enrolled her in preschool and she had regular access to kids her age. She’s got a memory like a steel trap, but she can’t figure out how to turn her clothes from wrong-side-out to right-side-out, and almost every day one or two items of clothing are put on backwards. Her sister – now 2 years old – can sing the alphabet and count along with another person, but has no interest in visual recognition of letters or numbers, and that is just fine with me. Watching these two explore the world in their own way is so fascinating to me.

    And yes, I am guilty of “pushing them down the stairs”, too. I get frustrated when the oldest can’t get into or out of clothing. Or when the youngest insists on feeding herself over-loaded spoonfuls of rice (so that the table and floor end up covered in rice.) Hopefully this series will be on-going for much longer and more of us can learn ways to encourage, but not force learning.

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  35. Ms B

    It’s very true and many in our society need to consider this point. I would push back a bit though on DAP always being appropriate. I have been reading more about the reconceptualist movement in early childhood education and I think it brings an interesting perspective to the conversation. You could argue that DAP paints all children with one brush of what is normal for all children at a specific period of time – but what if you have a child who falls outside of this? Do we not essentially ‘push these children down the stairs?” saying, oh no, you must meet this milestone by this age. Of course, understanding typical developmental stages is helpful, we might need to be careful with how we implement it.

    • notjustcute

      I do think DAP is misunderstood, both by those that oppose it, but also by some practitioners. DAP should be responsive to the individual child. Setting stagnant benchmarks is just another form of standardization and in my opinion, is the opposite of DAP. By its defintion, DAP should take into consideration both the typical developmental framework and also the individual learner. From that true definition, I do think DAP is always appropriate.

  36. Rharra

    I agree with what you are saying. I feel like American education is boasting progression yet in reality it is reverting back to the Industrial Age. We are attempting to create a superior “product” through the efficiency of mass production. However that only works with like parts & like systems… In a controlled environment. Could you imagine working the assembly line with mismatched parts or parts that came to you out of order? There would be two results; 1) the product created would certainly not be superior in the least as it would most likely be mashed together (to FORCE fit) and pushed through the line to meet quotas & 2) the amount of waste would greatly increase as good parts would have to be set aside simply because they weren’t received at the appropriate time during assembly.
    Our children are not Robots who can be mass produced. There is no such thing as a controlled environment when working with children in a real & human world. Treating every child as if they are an android on the same programmed schedule is to stifle everything in them the very Intelligence we wish to foster. It is to rob them of their courageous & curious spirits.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for standards. We need systems. We need accountability, but I feel for teachers who are held to universal standards in oversized classrooms. I feel for children who need more help or different help, but can’t get it because teachers don’t have the time and aren’t allowed to break from the only approved method. I feel for children who aren’t challenged enough and are restless and labeled “troublemakers” or worse- they become apathetic & just don’t get the opportunity to meet their potential. It just saddens me to see teaching systems not even created by teachers & implemented without trial.
    As a parent, it feels as if, in our attempt to promote equality we are actually creating conformity. Instead of teaching our children to respect and embrace differences we teach them that differences are wrong so be the same and we can all get along. We are teaching them that we give them lip service, but not funding so they better buck up and toughen up because they are the ones who are going yo be taking the blows while they are expected to meet expectations. And the teachers, the ones who want to make a difference, who feel like they are the ones dealing the blows to the kids they desire to nurture into excellence, yet can’t deviate from their scripts… They are leaving teaching because they too find it too hard to conform if it means detriment to their students. Why spend the extra time & money to get your masters in order to keep your certificate current only to not even get a big enough raise to pay your student loan… And those teachers would go in the negative to keep teaching at their own time/financial loss… If it meant they could actually teach.
    As a parent, it feels like the system wants robots for teachers & robots for student who will grow up and be robots for the system. But that’s just how it feels :(

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