Rocking and Rolling: DAP in Action in an Infant-Toddler Setting
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NAEYC defines developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) as “methods that promote each child’s optimal development and learning through a strengths-based, play-based approach to joyful, engaged learning” (NAEYC 2020, 5). To a casual visitor to an early childhood classroom, this might look like exploring and having fun. But the activities observed are actually a result of careful planning.
This Rocking and Rolling column presents an excerpt from NAEYC’s recently published Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth Through Age 8, Fourth Edition. To help illustrate what DAP looks and sounds like in action, early childhood educators, including infant-toddler teacher Dilshad Tolliver, submitted vignettes, or snapshots of practice, with self-reflection and connections to key DAP concepts. (An expanded version of this piece and other snapshots and reflections are included in the book.)
As you read, here are some DAP strategies, drawn from the position statement, to watch for in this loving, child-centered classroom:
- Educators build a relationship with each child and encourage relationships among the children.
- Educators create opportunities for family participation.
- Educators plan how to use their observations of and reflections on interactions with children as a guide to developing curricula.
- Educators provide just enough assistance to enable each child to perform at a skill level just beyond what the child can do on their own, then gradually reduce the support as the child begins to master the skill, setting the stage for the next challenge.
- Educators blend opportunities for each child to exercise choice and agency within an environment constructed to support specific learning experiences and meaningful goals.
We Put Paper on the Floor
Supporting the Emergent Literacy Skills of Infants and Toddlers
By Dilshad Tolliver, master teacher, A. Sophie Rogers School for Early Learning at The Ohio State University
Infants and toddlers change so quickly in a short time. They have such a sense of wonder and excitement, and as they develop and learn, their interests continue to grow and emerge. At our school, we provide many experiences to support toddlers’ early literacy development. Over the past year, the infants and toddlers in my mixed-age classroom of 12- to 24-month-olds have shown a strong interest in early literacy activities, particularly in exploring many different drawing, painting, and writing tools.
Teachers closely observe the children as they navigate materials and engage in a wide range of experiences that support early literacy development. We then record these observations so we can expand on the children’s continued interests throughout the other areas of the classroom and developmental domains. Teachers meet weekly to discuss what the children are interested in, determine what activities we should add to our curriculum guide, and set goals for each individual child according to their developmental age.
We then email families the general plan for the week, ask for their input, and encourage them to share pictures of their children engaged in play and exploration at home (like cooking together) so we can strengthen connections between home and school. These photos are used to extend children’s at-home explorations in the classroom and as part of our documentation. By inviting families to participate in this way, we build stronger home-school relationships and foster more robust family engagement.
What Writing and Drawing Look Like in an Infant and Toddler Classroom
Throughout our mixed-age classroom, children have access to many open-ended writing and painting materials, as well as books. What follows are a few different scenes that unfolded in our classroom.
One of the infants in our classroom, a boy between 6 to 10 months old, is able to grasp writing and drawing materials. We support his natural curiosity of writing and print by allowing him to sit with some of the older children who are manipulating the same materials and writing ideas. The infant learns more about the tool as he experiments with manipulating it.
A few infants in the library center sit and flip through the pages in board books, looking at the pictures and print. Meanwhile, some of the older toddlers are going through books more deliberately, naming objects and characters they notice as they go.
A few children who are 12 to 18 months old experiment with removing the lids from containers of paint and placing them back on. They are entering the sensorimotor stage of writing and drawing, which moves beyond exploration of the materials to the beginnings of mark making, including dots, zigzags, and whorls. The children use their entire fist to grasp utensils and incorporate their whole arm in the mark making process. We teachers notice that the children are starting to show a preference for which hand to write with, and we continue to support them as they make this preference known.
A few children between the ages of 18 months and 3 years graduate from the sensorimotor stage of writing to the preoperational stage. This means that their writing transforms from nonfigural graphics (such as scribbling and wavy lines on the page simply for the joy of writing) to purposeful and consistent strings of circles or pseudo letters.
One older toddler starts to use her drawings to represent objects and ideas. She makes connections to items used for provocation (letters, pictures, words) and often engages in private speech while exploring writing. She sings the alphabet when letters are present; discusses her friends, teachers, and family when pictures are displayed; and even goes one step further by recalling people, places, and things to give a deeper meaning to her strokes.
Throughout the weeks, we collect the children’s writing work samples and put them on display in our classroom at the children’s eye-level. Tommy, an older toddler, points to his work and says, “Mine.” The teacher responds, “Yes, Tommy, this is your work. What did you write about?” Tommy looks at his scribbles and says, “Work.” Another child who cannot verbally express her thoughts yet in words points to the display and smiles.
At the beginning of the year, simple writing and drawing tools are placed on tables in the writing center for the children to sit and use. The utensils are wide crayons and markers that young toddlers can easily grasp as they develop their small muscle control. Soon, however, we notice the older toddlers grow bored and begin to write on the furniture, floor, and walls of the classroom.
Observing this repeated behavior compels our teaching team to consider how we can continue to foster the children’s love of writing while also focusing their energies into more planful learning experiences. After some brainstorming, we adjust our thinking and come up with a few ideas for accommodating the children’s interest in exploring writing in ways that are less restrictive than sitting at a table with a small sheet of paper. For a different perspective and an environmental change, we tape paper on the classroom floor, set up easels, and provide chalk outdoors. At the easels, there are paintbrushes in a range of colors and sizes for children to use as they explore mixing colors and making brushstrokes on paper. Gradually, we introduce oil pastels, colored pencils, and ink pens for the children to explore different textures and the way these tools leave marks on paper.
We view children as readers and writers, and we strive to provide materials to support this. The children in our classroom explore writing materials in different ways based on their age and developmental level; however, they are all developing important skills. At first, children’s writing involves very simple explorations. In this young age group, children often consider writing and drawing the same. They cannot differentiate between the two until they are older and can recognize something as a picture to be drawn or as letters to be written. Regardless, their scribbles are meaningful to them as writers.
Using materials such as paints and wide crayons, children can strengthen the small muscles later needed for writing and explore ways to make marks on paper and express themselves through making marks on paper. As children begin to grow and develop, these simple marks become more controlled and complex, and they incorporate various features of conventional written language. Their writing samples often include circles, dots, vertical lines, horizontal lines, and repeated marks on the page. When children describe what their writings say, they illustrate their understanding that marks and letters represent something. Observations like these demonstrate that literacy skills develop early; therefore, it is important that children of all ages be given many opportunities to explore drawing and writing.
When children have a lot of experiences with print in books and in their environment, they use what they observe about letters and words in their scribbling and writing. Literacy experiences like flipping book pages, looking at print, and retelling stories to themselves and others are important in helping young children develop critical skills, including understanding the purpose of books and recognizing print to have meaning, even at a young age. In our classroom, we constantly see connections between children looking at print as they flip through books and the marks they make with crayons and other materials to represent print.
Early literacy skills begin to develop long before young children begin formal writing and reading instruction in elementary school. Early literacy development does not simply happen; rather, it is part of a social process, embedded in children’s relationships with others. This is one of the many reasons why the home-school connection is especially important when teaching in an infant and toddler classroom. It is people who make reading and writing interesting and meaningful to young children. Family members, caretakers, and teachers serve as models who demonstrate the use of materials, provide materials, and offer encouragement to children in their use of literacy materials.
Connections to Developmentally Appropriate Practice
As part of our school philosophy, we believe that all children are capable, competent learners and that every age group should be given the opportunity to explore the materials in their environment, especially the youngest of learners. We see many connections to guidelines and principles from the position statement on developmentally appropriate practice as we think about toddler early literacy and writing. Here are just a few:
- We meet weekly to discuss our curriculum plan and how we might adjust for children’s interests. We also respond to children’s interest in exploring writing materials in different ways and incorporate this into our weekly planning (guideline 5).
- We share our plans with families and offer them ways to in turn share what they are experiencing at home with their children to strengthen learning across home and school settings in ways that are mutually supportive (guideline 2).
- We understand that toddlers experience literacy in a connected way and see connections between book reading and writing explorations (principle 7).
- We understand that young children learn through exploration and play and that drawing on the floor was a way of exploring use of materials. We adjusted how we offered writing materials based on children’s explorations and interests (principle 5).
- We observed what children were doing and what we were offering and adjusted how we organized materials. We also discussed the results and what individual children did to show us what they knew about writing (guidelines 3 and 4).
Think About It
- What is one strategy, activity, or material in the classroom vignette that stood out as something you would like to try? If your setting is already full of examples of DAP in action, what is one thing that is working especially well?
- How comfortable are you with letting children take the lead and with adapting activities to suit their needs and interests? What are the challenges of this approach?
- What is your favorite strategy for engaging with families? Why? Which of the author’s suggestions would you consider trying?
- Supply the children in your classroom with a set of child-safe objects (for example, blocks, ball ramps, toy dishes and food, or puppets) and observe what they do with them. What are the children learning? How could you extend this learning? If working with multiple ages, how do children’s responses differ by age? What are they learning from each other?
- NAEYC’s DAP guidelines suggest that curriculum should include both the familiar and the unfamiliar, also known as mirrors and windows (NAEYC 2020). We want children to “see themselves, their families, and their communities reflected in the learning environment, materials, and activities” (the mirrors) (25). The curriculum should also provide ways of viewing the wider world “so that children learn about peoples, places, arts, sciences, and so on that they would otherwise not encounter” (the windows) (25). Create a learning experience (or a series of them) based on a song or picture book that does both.
- Describe different ways in which you will engage family members in planning and carrying out either of the above activities.
Rocking & Rolling is written by infant and toddler specialists and contributed by ZERO TO THREE, a nonprofit organization working to promote the health and development of infants and toddlers by translating research and knowledge into a range of practical tools and resources for use by the adults who influence the lives of young children. The column and references for this article can be found online at NAEYC.org/resources/pubs/yc/columns.
Copyright © 2022 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at NAEYC.org/resources/permissions.
NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children). 2020. “Developmentally Appropriate Practice.” Position statement. Washington, DC: NAEYC. https://www.naeyc.org/resources/position-statements/dap/contents
Kathy Kinsner has been a reading specialist, an Emmy-winning producer on the PBS series Reading Rainbow, and the person in charge of curriculum development at nonprofit Roads to Success. She has a master’s in education from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in television, radio, and film from Syracuse University. Currently, she is the senior manager of parenting resources at ZERO TO THREE.