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    • Identify examples of types of learning that takes place in preschool.
    • Describe your own values and assumptions about what children should learn in preschool.
    • Create experiences and activities for your classroom and identify what children are learning from them.




    Your preschool classroom likely serves children between the ages of three and five, so you must be prepared to meet a variety of needs. Child development is an important tool for understanding what children learn. What a young three-year-old child learns about math might be very different from what a five-year-old child learns. Developmentally appropriate practice provides the teacher with structured guidance on how to support the growth and development of children along with making learning meaningful and purposeful to their abilities. Developmentally appropriate practice is an approach to teaching grounded both in the research on how young children develop and learn and in what is known about effective early education (NAEYC, 2009). You must understand what skills are typical for children of certain ages, what is appropriate for an individual child, and what is valued by families and communities (NAEYC, 2009). You should use this knowledge to make daily decisions about the learning experiences you offer children.

    Experiences and Activities that Promote Preschool Children's Cognitive Development

    Children learn so much in preschool! Much of this learning falls into six categories (Dodge, Colker, & Heroman, 2002): math, science, social studies, language and literacy, art, and technology. Teachers can support children's learning across these content areas. Young children learn best through daily experiences and interactions. Here are a few examples of ways children might learn important concepts:

    • Math: A preschool child notices what comes next in a pattern. A child notices that his friend has a different number (size) on his shoe.
    • Science: A child uses her senses to explore a new food offered for lunch. Another child discusses what the class pet needs to stay healthy and describes the pet's habitat.
    • Social Studies: A child brings in her baby pictures and takes on family roles in the dramatic play area. Children draw a map of their school or the local playground.
    • Language and Literacy: A child sings rhyming songs and claps the syllables in words. A child spends time relaxing and looking at books.
    • Art: A child creates a 3-dimensional sculpture of the bird house she sees outside the window. Another child dances to music and pats a rhythm on a drum.
    • Technology: A child uses a computer to create a message and artwork for his mother. Another child sits with a teacher and looks up information on the internet about their class investigation.

    You might notice that many of these examples involve learning in more than one area. For example, when a child types a message to his mother on the computer, he is learning about technology, literacy, and many other content areas. When a child claps along to a rhyming song, she may be learning literacy, math, and music. It is important to keep in mind that everyday experiences offer many opportunities for learning. It is also important to remember that young children are natural explorers. They are hungry for information about the world around them. Children are learning how to learn. Adults can nurture this curiosity. You can help children learn how to learn.

    How can you help children? Current research says the best way is by promoting exploration and problem solving. This helps children develop thinking skills. There is a lot you can do to help children learn. Here is a short list of ways to support preschool children:

    • Model your own thinking skills. Think out loud. For example, you might say, "Hmm. I really wanted to paint this part of my picture purple, but Josie is using the purple paint. I think I'll paint this part yellow instead."
    • Find opportunities throughout the day to play "What if…?" games. Ask the children questions like, "What would we do if all of our chairs were gone?!" or "What if we run out of snack? What should we do?"
    • Give children lots of chances to explore concepts. Play games during transitions by asking children to line up based on some characteristics: "Everyone who is wearing blue jeans can line up" or "If you are wearing sandals, you can wash your hands."

    Encourage children to use self-control and recognize when they do! Say things like, "I know you were working really hard on that structure. It's really hard to stop, but your mom is here. How about we put a sign on your structure and save it for tomorrow?"

    Addressing the Needs of Diverse Learners and Families

    As you learned in Lesson 4, it is very important to develop meaningful learning experiences for all children. This includes children with special learning needs. All children need a strong developmentally appropriate curriculum, a supportive environment, and nurturing relationships with adults. For some children, though, this is not enough for them to succeed. Some children need special accommodations. As a preschool teacher, you will have to plan accommodations to help individual children.

    Children with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) have a specific program to help them meet personal goals. Educators should read the IEP to learn about the child's goals, services, and adaptations. Just as each child is different, each IEP is different. In general, these children will need changes or adaptations to the curricula, the classroom, and the daily activities.

    Children who speak another language and are learning English are often called English language learners (ELL) or dual language learners (DLL). It might be hard for some of these children to do all classroom activities easily. Children learning English in your classroom will probably be at very different levels. Some might hear quite a bit of English in their home, while others may hear none. This means that some children might need more help than others. You can help children who are learning English by (a) including multicultural activities, (b) giving them special supports, and (c) making these children feel included in all activities.

    What does it look like to help all children learn? It is characterized by flexibility and a variety of changes.

    Changes to curricula

    Think about whether your curriculum includes the right kind of goals and instruction for a child. If not, you can make some changes to how information is presented. For example, some children might need to hear and see a certain letter in many different ways because learning letters is harder for them. Children with weak vocabulary skills might benefit from hearing vocabulary words before you read them a story.

    Changes to the environment

    You might have to change the classroom to meet the needs of some children. A child might need changes in where he or she sits, such as using a chair at circle time if the child has trouble sitting on the carpet. Other classroom changes might include using picture cues (such as photographs) or schedules as reminders, shapes taped to the floor to help children when they line up, sensory objects in the classroom, or changes in the lighting or sound in the room.

    Changes during activities

    Children with dis/abilites might find it hard to work on and finish activities that other children might do easily. If a child has trouble painting, an adult could put his or her hand over the child's to make it easier. During the preschool day, the same child might need more help with some activities and less help with others. The help that you give a child probably will change over time as he or she gets better at doing an activity. Think about fading help so that the child learns to do the activity on his or her own.

    One of the best things that educators can do is actively include all children in all activities. Children with dis/abilities or those learning English may have a hard time joining classroom activities because they don't know what to do or are afraid. Try some of these ideas to help include all children:

    • Watch children when they are playing and make sure that children are not excluded from activities.
    • Before an activity, think about what might be hard for a child, such as using scissors, and be prepared to help that child complete the activity.
    • Use classroom rules as a way to teach children about including everyone.
    • Show children how they can include others in their play.
    • Praise children when they try to include others.

    Using the idea of Universal Design for Learning, introduced in Lesson 4, Sandall and Schwartz (2008) identify eight types of curriculum supports for children with dis/abilities and children learning English. You can use the chart in the Apply section of this lesson to think of ideas to support children in your class.

    It is important to answer a question that many educators have: Are changes and supports for one child fair to other children in the class? The issue of fairness becomes less of a worry when you think of your role to support all children. You give each child what he or she needs when he or she needs it. Every child gets extra help and support at one time or another. As a teacher, you should know the strengths and needs of all children and know how to help each child.

    Reflecting on Culture

    Culture influences how all of us view the world and the people around us. Every time we enter the classroom, we bring our own culture in with us. This culture influences the way we think and act. Understanding our own individual culture can increase our confidence and ability to work with others around us. Culture affects every part of our life. Look at the role culture plays in your interactions with others. Think about the ways your history and values affect your teaching. Do you expect family members to attend meetings and help with the class? Do you expect children to be toilet trained at a certain age? When do you think children should feed and dress themselves? These questions can be influenced by our culture and upbringing.

    Children enter our programs with unique backgrounds and experiences. Knowing children's backgrounds and preferences is the heart of developmentally appropriate practice. You can use this information to send the message, "You belong here." By acknowledging the cultures and traditions of the children, parents, and staff in your own classroom you can make embracing culture more relevant for the children of your classroom. By doing that you also help promote a sense of belonging and community.

    Many children will enter your classroom with a first language other than English. It is important to recognize, respect, and reinforce home language use (NAEYC, 1995). Here are a couple of ways to make a child comfortable in the classroom:

    • Hire a staff member who speaks the child's home language.
    • Use Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as you may have to change your classroom environment to meet the needs of all children. There are many ways you can communicate with children, including speech, pictures, music, and multimedia. Children can express what they know in multiple ways, too. This might be through music, dance, drawing, technology and so on. Lesson 5 in this course provides extensive information about working with diverse learners and their families.

    Watch this video to see examples of how culture and diversity are embraced in Preschool.

    Embracing Culture

    Watch this video to see examples of how culture and diversity are embraced in Preschool


    What does learning look like in each of these content areas? What does good teaching look like? There are many answers to these questions. Take a look at these videos to learn more and to see examples.

    What Children Learn in Preschool

    This video describes the focus of most learning and teaching in preschool.


    You promote learning through your interactions every day. The rest of this course will provide more detail about learning activities. For now, it is important to:

    • Recognize the importance of learning across all content areas.
    • Provide opportunities for children to explore math, science, social studies, language and literacy, art, and technology.
    • Remember children learn through play and exploration!
    • Develop activity plans or curriculum plans that incorporate learning opportunities across all content areas.
    • Know that children vary in their learning across these content areas. Provide a variety of learning opportunities to meet each child's needs.

    Screen-based media is such a big part of our culture, we even refer to younger generations as “born digital.” To access a twelve-point checklist to help you consider best uses of interactive media in your program, see the Checklist for Identifying Exemplary Uses of Technology and Interactive Media for Early Learning from the Fred Rogers Center at This resource is also available below as a Learn Attachment. When families seek guidance on media and technology use, you can share recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and other research-based information: 

    • Encourage families to turn screens and devices off when not in use. Background television and device use can decrease the quality of children's play and the amount of interaction occurring between family members. 
    • Support families in establishing bedtime routines for their children that don’t involve media and technology use. Viewing electronic devices close to bedtime can affect the quality and amount of sleep, as well as the ease of falling asleep for children.
    • Choose developmentally appropriate programming and games. Sesame Street, PBS Kids, and Common Sense Media are excellent resources if families need guidance on what “high-quality” looks like.



    What should children learn in preschool? Each of us has different opinions, philosophies, and ideas about what and how children learn. Download and print the What Should Children Learn Activity. Use these scenarios to reflect on your own point of view. Then think about how you would use your knowledge of cognitive development to respond to the adults in the scenarios. Write your responses and share them with a supervisor, trainer, or coach. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses.



    It’s important to be ready to talk about why you do what you do. The What Am I Learning? resource can help prepare you. After you print the document, cut the "What am I Learning in…” sections into four cards, and post them in your interest areas or learning centers.

    It is also equally important to meaningfully address the needs of all children in your classroom. Using the principals of universal design for learning (UDL), Sandall and Schwartz (2008) identify eight types of curriculum supports for children with dis/abilities and children learning English. Use the Curriculum Supports for ALL Children chart to learn about them.


    AdaptationsChanges to instruction provided to a child based on his or her needs
    Developmentally appropriate practice“An approach to teaching grounded both in the research on how young children develop and learn and in what is known about effective early education” (NAEYC, 2009)




    Finish this statement: Developmentally appropriate practice…


    Which of the following is a developmentally appropriate example of how a preschool child might learn important concepts about literacy and language?


    Which of the following can you do to help all preschool children learn?

    References & Resources

    American Academy of Pediatrics. (2016). AAP Announces New Recommendations for Children’s Media Use.

    Beyens, I. &  Nathanson, A.I. (2018). Electronic Media Use and Sleep Among Preschoolers: Evidence for Time-Shifted and Less Consolidated Sleep. Health Communication, 1-8. 

    Dodge, D. T., Colker, J., & Heroman, C. (2002). The Creative Curriculum for Preschool. Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies Inc.

    Head Start Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center (2018). Caring Connections Podcast 7: Let's Talk About . . Music. Retrieved from

    National Association for the Education of Young Children (2009). Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8 (3rd Ed.). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

    National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media at Saint Vincent College (2012). Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

    Sandall, S. R., & Schwartz, I. S. (2008). Building Blocks for Teaching Preschoolers with Special Needs. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Co.

    Schmidt, M. E., Pempek, T. A., Kirkorian, H. L., Lund, A. F. and Anderson, D. R. (2008). The Effects of Background Television on the Toy Play Behavior of Very Young Children. Child Development, 79(4). 

    Setliff, A. E. and Courage, M. L. (2011). Background Television and Infants’ Allocation of Their Attention During Toy Play. Infancy, 16(6).