The D.A.P. Gap: Is Cute the Enemy of Quality?

By Karen N. Nemeth,

Let’s be honest. Worksheets, cookie cutter craft activities, printables, and plastic manipulatives are widely reviled by early childhood education experts, yet they are widely available and often used in preschool and child care programs. At a recent luncheon with early childhood professional development providers and authors, we tried to sort out why this problem persists and consider why it is so hard to bring the clear messages from research into play in classrooms.

preschool D.A.P.

Day in and day out we see posts defending “play based learning” yet, in classrooms, we are seeing limited conversations, low quality play and content-poor activities. Why do these differences exist? Who are the people (teachers, caregivers and administrators) who really do implement developmentally appropriate practice? How are they different from the people who don’t use D.A.P.? Is there a gap in knowledge about what D.A.P means and how it influences lasting learning outcomes? Is there an informed rejection of the D.A.P approach to early education? Are old ways too hard to give up? Are sales pitches from websites and catalogs so irresistible? Do standards, QRIS systems and the Common Core play a role in this discrepancy? Are we wrong to ask these questions? Here are some of the developmentally inappropriate examples we use in our workshops:

A winter project that showed a teacher-cut shape of a giant mitten on which children had glued cotton balls. Doesn’t look like a real mitten, doesn’t function like a real mitten, isn’t made of anything a mitten would be made of. And, even worse, no connection for students that live in warm climates or students who live in the northeastern U.S. where no one needed mittens till after the first of the year. This allows no creativity, no meaning, no learning value and even no potential for play. Doesn’t help children understand winter, doesn’t help them understand mittens.            What choices would have been better?

Making “goop” or similar substance with 2-year-olds. It doesn’t mix like anything else you would mix. Has no purpose – can’t be eaten, molded or used so mixing the ingredients doesn’t lead to any understanding. When you’re done – you just throw it away. Teachers have defended this by saying “but we just want the children to experience different things.” Or “sensory”. But the truth is, there are so many real things for them to experience that will help them understand the world around them while also being fun and sensational – why choose this instead of mixing sand and water to make a structure or mixing two colors of paint to make your picture?            What choices would have been better?

Dinosaurs.  How often do we hear – “Kids love dinosaurs and D.A.P. says we should follow children’s interests!” Very tricky… but kids love a lot of things so you don’t have to pick dinosaurs. What do we have against dinosaurs? They don’t exist. There are so many animals in the child’s real world that could be studied and identified and cared for that would have real world meaning. Why choose dinosaurs that are only seen as plastic toys or cartoons?            What choices would have been better?

Handing out black paper and orange paint in October.  No choice allowed for children, yet no meaning to the activity. Stripes of orange paint do not help them understand what a pumpkin is or how it grows or what it looks like on the inside. But this is also not art. There is no creativity or independent thought or opportunity for rich, engaging conversation.            What choices would have been better?

A poster in 3-year-old class with the sign language alphabet. When children do no yet know any alphabet, hand spelling doesn’t mean anything to them. Pictures of hands in different positions are not going to support “diversity” because they have no relevance for the children nor will they signs be used in the classroom. USING sign language for words like eat, drink, toilet, hurt, more and stop could be a more useful strategy to help children of all languages and abilities understand.            What choices could have been better?

Precut red and black ladybug with counting spots. Gluing circles of paper onto other precut paper has no meaning. It may look like a ladybug to an adult, but to a child it is just something to copy for no purpose. Counting the spots has no meaning if there’s no value to the number of spots. What difference does it make if there are two or four? It matters if you have two cookies and your friend gets four. It matters if the puzzle has four spaces but you only have two pieces. It matters if you have two feet but only one shoe.            What choices could have been better?

Printable coloring page with leprechaun. Is this really what you want children to learn about Ireland and Irish culture? Is coloring a printable picture of a leprechaun providing anything to discuss or create or imagine? What is the holiday of St. Patrick’s Day? What meaning does it have for children? Is this just cute or is it quality?            What choices could have been better?

Skill-based activities with no real content.  You can teach sorting plastic things for no purpose and be pretty sure the children can’t generalize to any real life items that need to be sorted. Or you can teach sorting by asking the children to help you find the pieces for each puzzle from a pile of puzzle pieces, or sort the markers that work from the markers that are dried out, or sort the newly washed clothes for the dramatic play area. True D.A.P. based on the research tells us that skills and letters and phonemes should be learned in the context of useful, authentic content. An activity that teaches nothing more than sorting doesn’t really teach sorting either. An activity that involves playing with realistic items that need to be sorted teaches content and vocabulary as well as a lasting, generalizable understanding about sorting.            What choices could have been better?

Voices of professional development presenters:

Rosanne Hansel, PA pushes kindergarten teachers to look for deeper meaning and purpose when choosing activities, not just counting for the sake of counting.

Barbara Capra, NJ asks her teachers “Is it cute or is it a quality early learning experience?” She advises teachers to evaluate activities by looking at skills/standards/objectives, time, implementation and the source to really be sure they are making the right choices for young children.

Liz Vaughan, PA, asks teachers to know the difference between art and crafts, but she recognizes the value of predictable, developmentally appropriate routines.

Pam Brillante, NJ, asks teachers to “step away from the Pinterest” because young children, particularly children with disabilities, need learning that connects with experiences they recognize from their daily life rather than isolated activities.

And, these connections to real things and experiences are even more important when teaching young children who are dual language learners! This is one of the reasons these questions seem so pressing right now.

We find it so difficult to help teachers give up activities they’ve been using. They put a lot of energy into defending the old ways instead of using that energy to learn new ways. How can we help? How can we make our writing and our workshops more effective?  How can we reach out to those old websites, app developers and Pinterest pages that keep publishing inappropriate materials and activities?

The questions we want teachers to ask are: What for? And What more?  In other words, when choosing any activity, can the teacher explain what the children will learn from it that they can really use? We don’t mean to just imitate, or experience, but actually use in their life?  And if they find that the activity does provide some learning experience that the child can really use, can the teacher identify related activities that will extend the learning and allow the child to put his new learning to use? Teaching kindergarteners to identify a picture of an asteroid may seem like science, but if they never use that word again or see anything to do with asteroids or have any asteroid activities again for the rest of the school year – they won’t remember it. What for? and What more?  Can these questions help early childhood educators break through the D.A.P Gap?

P.S. Want to learn more about this discussion? Try this article by Nell K. Duke: What Doesn’t Work: Literacy Practices We Should Abandon on Edutopia.




  • Sarah Davies says:

    To me, it comes down to the difference in having kids make crafts versus make art. I prefer art.

  • Vikkie Murray says:

    I agree except for dinosaurs! I am an EY professional with a 3 year old son who is obsessed with dinosaurs! Dinosaurs may be extinct but they DID exist! Dinosaur play, non fiction book sharing and museum visits have extended his vocabulary,given him a new perspective on animals and their diets and developed his ability to question what he knows and ask about what he doesn’t! Dinosaurs have their place as long as the thought process and the adult support is purposeful

    • Jon says:

      I agree! As long as we consider how we can expand on this idea and where it does fit into real life (fossil dig sites, history books, museums, etc.), it can be a potentially valuable activity for children. The only problem I would find with this if a dinosaur activity were limited to only a one-time/day exploration or if it were limited to a craft activity.

    • Teri says:

      I don’t think we have to ban dinosaurs. I think the point is that we should be offering experiences with real things. I was just in two different preschool classes, at the same school, where they were studying “ocean animals.” It was so superficial and meaningless. I offered to bring in a fish from the market and a frozen octopus from a local Portuguese market. I talked about my experience doing this -kids loved touching the fish scales, fins, tail, eyes. Some were a bit scared to put their finger in its mouth, but loved finding out it had teeth. We made Japanese-style fish prints by rolling on paint. They loved seeing the imprint of scales. They LOVED the octopus, especially when their finger stuck to the tentacles. One teacher said, “Eeew! No, thanks.” The other just said no thanks. The only real objects they offered were seashells. I was bored. I couldn’t imagine doing this unit without seeing real animals. It’s not rocket science, is it?!

  • Tara says:

    Sadly in school boards this is what ECEs are chomping at the bit to do. Teachers are not trained for developmentally appropriate play. I’ve been partnered with a teacher that took history as their teachable went to teachers college and then did an AQ course over the summer, BOOM considered to be prepared to teach 4 and 5 year olds. Principals and superintendents aren’t trained either, so many people out of the loop and school boards pushing LLI and Prime math down our throats. I was burnt out trying to explore and justify DAP, I’ve given in, I go with the flow now and do the best I can given my circumstance. Let’s not even get into budget for manipulative and supplies to support DAP.

  • Robi says:

    Don’t give up if you can hang in! There are those of us who do want this and are very grateful to be working with ECEs who know where kids this age are coming from! It is going to take teachers and ECEs working together to educate the other grade teachers too so that we can provide developmentally appropriate strategies at all ages!

  • Linda says:

    Well said! Sadly, in many cases of trying to get away from worksheets, crafts, etc, teachers introduce activities that have little meaning. I teach a class on play and end up spending the entire semester helping students move from the craft/worksheet mentality to posing real questions for children to explore.

    I am very concerned about the push for universal preschool. All children deserve preschool opportunities, but as Tara mentioned, too often individuals without early childhood education backgrounds either teach in or supervise these programs which leads to inappropriate activities and/or expectations. Children deserve better!

  • Michelle Adkins says:

    As an ECE professional development provider I know well the dilemma of providing seemingly endless hours of training that lead to no real change in classroom practice. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, but I would like to suggest that there may be value in turning our focus away from the teachers and onto our own practices.

    I served for 16 years as a professional development professional at an innovative consulting firm that was willing to take chances and consider a different way to approach adult learning. I offer the following lessons learned not as recommendations or accusations, simply as points worth considering.

    1. Data dumps don’t work. We must be willing to get out of our own heads long enough to acknowledge that we are not the only experts in the room. Every teacher has strengths. It is our job to connect to and build upon those strengths.

    2. Dialogue works. Large group and small group conversations are critical to the adult learning process. Small group conversations in particular allow teachers to react, question, and tease out what will work for them.

    3. Trust the learner. Teachers can and will create their own answers given the appropriate time and environment in which to do so.

    4. I don’t have the answers. I have some information that may or may not be new to the learner. ECE teachers must be given the opportunity to compare and contrast what they already understand to be true with that new information. Only then can they begin to envision how this new understanding might change their practice.

    5. Experiential learning is powerful. Any time we were able to develop an experience that put teachers in an analogous situation to what children were experiencing, the learning was visceral and meaningful. What is the adult analogy for children being asked to glue cotton balls on cutout mittens? Or, counting spots on cutout ladybugs?

    Gene Bellinger, a systems thinker, says that for adults to change, 4 conditions must be met. The learner must: know what, know why, care why, and know how. I found it useful to review my sessions to assess whether we were spending too much time on the know what and know why and too little time on the care why and know how.

    It takes time and ingenuity to create experiential learning experiences, but our teachers deserve the best from us so that they can give their best to the children.

  • Darlene Gormly says:

    I agree wholeheartedly! My newest pet peeve is the explosion of “sensory bins” containing a bunch of junk from the dollar store. An example would be a “spring sensory box” with artificial flowers, plastic butterflies, and colored pom poms. I just don’t understand how this is teaching about spring. Being outside in the real world easily teaches children about spring — hearing and seeing birds, insects; observing buds on the trees and flower shoots poking through the soil; and having conversations about them.

    My only point of disagreement is the posting of the sign language alphabet. Just as words, letters, and numbers are part of an early childhood classroom, I believe the sign language alphabet is another form of the alphabet. I used to have a poster and several books in my writing/literacy area, along with all my other alphabet books.

    • Karen Nemeth says:

      HI, Darlene – I know what you mean about the sign language alphabet. The reason I included that example in the article was because I so often see classrooms that post that alphabet somewhere – never looking at it or using it or talking about it – to just give the token appearance that they have covered “diversity”. But, if the teacher was genuinely interested in supporting communication with children who might use sign language, the alphabet would not be the first place to start for 3 – 4 year olds when they could more easily benefit from learning useful ASL words before learning to finger spell. Thanks for adding to this discussion!

  • Paula says:

    Hi Karen it would be lovely if you could post a list of experiences that you recommend for an educator to do that are meaningful for the children. I see articles like this often, leaving the educator to think fro themselves but it would be nice to give a few ideas to support what is suggested.

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