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Preschool Learning Foundations, Volume 1


The preschool learning foundations are a critical step in the California Department of Education’s (CDE's) efforts to strengthen preschool education and school readiness and to close the achievement gap in California.

As the word is used in this publication, foundations describe the knowledge, skills, and competencies that children typically attain at around 48 and 60 months of age when they participate in a high-quality preschool program and with adequate support. The foundations define "destination points" for where children are going (in terms of development) during this age range. They also help to inform practitioners about children’s academic and social development so that decisions can be made to support children’s curriculum and growth.

Many pre-school children learn simply by participating in high-quality preschool programs. Such programs encourage active, playful exploration and experimentation. With play as an integral part of the curriculum, high-quality programs include purposeful teaching to help children gain knowledge and skills. In addition, many children in California’s preschools benefit from specific support in learning English. Other children may have a special need that requires particular accommodations and adaptations. To serve all children, preschool programs must work to provide appropriate conditions for learning and individually assist each child to move along a pathway of healthy learning and development.

In California, priority has been placed on aligning expectations for preschool learning with the state’s kindergarten academic content standards. This academic emphasis is complemented by attention to social-emotional development and English-language development. The concepts in social-emotional development and English-language development contribute significantly to young children’s readiness for school.

The preschool learning foundations presented in this document cover the following four domains or areas of emphasis:

  • Social-Emotional Development
  • Language and Literacy
  • English-Language Development (for English learners)
  • Mathematics

When taking an in-depth look at one domain, one needs to keep in mind that, for young children, learning is usually an integrated experience. For example, a young child may be concentrating on mathematical reasoning, but at the same time, there may be linguistic learning that result from the experience.

Together, the four domains represent crucial areas of learning and development for young children. The foundations within a particular domain provide a thorough overview of development in that domain.

The foundations written for each of these domains are based on research and evidence and are enhanced by expert practitioners’ suggestions and examples. Their purpose is to promote understanding of preschool children’s learning and to guide instructional practice.

It is anticipated that teachers, administrators, parents, and policymakers will use the foundations as a guide when helping all young children to acquire the competencies that will prepare them for success in school.

Overview of the Foundations

The foundations are presented according to four domains of learning and development. Each of the domains contains strands or areas of emphasis within the domain. The strands for each of the four domains are listed below.

Social-Emotional Development Domain

The social-emotional development domain consists of the following three strands:

  • Self, which includes self-awareness and self-regulation, social and emotional understanding, empathy and caring, and initiative in learning
  • Social Interaction, which focuses on interactions with familiar adults, interactions with peers, group participation, and cooperation and responsibility
  • Relationships, which addresses attachments to parents, close relationships with teachers and caregivers, and friendships

Young children’s development in this domain influences their ability to adapt successfully to preschool and, later on, in school.

Language and Literacy Domain

The language and literacy foundations address a wide range of competencies that preschool children will need in order to learn. These foundations focus on the following three strands:

  • Listening and Speaking, which includes language use and conventions, vocabulary, and grammar
  • Reading, which covers concepts about print, phonological awareness, alphabetic and word/print recognition, comprehension and analysis of age-appropriate text, and literacy interest and response
  • Writing, which focuses on writing strategies, including the emergent use of writing and writing-like behaviors
English-Language Development Domain

The English-language development foundations are specifically designed for children entering preschool who speak a home language other than English. Some English learners will begin preschool already having had some experience with English. For other English learners, preschool will offer them their first meaningful exposure to English. No matter how much background English learners have with English before they enter preschool, they will be on the path to acquire a second language.

  • Listening, which includes understanding words, requests and directions, and basic and advanced concepts
  • Speaking, which focuses on using English to communicate needs, expand vocabulary, become skillful at engaging in conversations, use increasingly complex grammatical constructions when speaking, understand grammar, ask questions, use social conventions, and tell personal stories
  • Reading, which covers appreciating and enjoying reading, understanding book reading, understanding print conventions, demonstrating awareness that print conveys meaning, developing awareness and recognition of letters, demonstrating phonological awareness, and manipulating sounds, such as rhyming
  • Writing, which includes understanding the communicative function of writing and engaging in simple writing and writing-like behaviors

The English-language development foundations are defined by three levels of development — Beginning, Middle and Later. Depending on their prior experience with using their home language and English to communicate with others, preschool English learners will go through these levels at different paces. Once children reach the later level, they will still need support to continue acquiring English and to apply their developing linguistic abilities in every domain.

Mathematics Domain

The mathematics foundations cover the following five strands:

  • Number Sense, which includes understanding of counting, number relationships, and operations
  • Algebra and Functions (Classification and Patterning), which focuses on sorting and classifying objects and recognizing and understanding simple, repeating patterns
  • Measurement, which includes comparison and ordering
  • Geometry, which focuses on properties of objects (shape, size, position) and the relation of objects in space
  • Mathematical Reasoning, which addresses how young children use mathematical thinking to solve everyday problems

Preschool programs can promote young children’s learning in this domain by engaging children in mathematical thinking and by introducing learning activities that focus on mathematical concepts.

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Organization of the Foundations

In the main body of this publication, each strand is broken out into one or more substrands, and the foundations are organized under the substrands.

As mentioned earlier, the foundations are presented for children at around 48 months of age and at around 60 months of age. In some cases the difference between the foundations for 48 months and 60 months is more pronounced than for the other foundations. Even so, the foundations focus on 48 and 60 months of age because they correspond to the end of the first and second years of preschool.

Teachers need to know where each child is on a continuum of learning throughout the child’s time in preschool. The Desired Results Developmental Profile-Revised (DRDP-R) is a teacher observation tool that is being aligned with the foundations. The DRDP-R gives teachers a means to observe children’s learning along a continuum of four developmental levels.

Finally, the examples listed under each foundation give a range of possible ways in which children can demonstrate a foundation. The examples suggest different kinds of contexts in which children may show the competencies reflected in the foundations. Examples highlight that children are learning while they are engaging in imaginative play, exploring the environment and materials, making discoveries, being inventive, or interacting with teachers or other adults. Although often illustrative of the diversity of young children’s learning experiences, the examples listed under a foundation are not exhaustive. In fact, teachers often observe other ways in which young children demonstrate a foundation.

Note: The Appendix (DOC) contains a listing of the foundations in each domain, without examples.

Universal Design for Learning

The California preschool learning foundations are guides to support preschool programs in their efforts to foster the learning and development of all young children in California, including children who have disabilities.

In some cases, children with disabilities will need to use alternate methods for showing their development. It is important that preschool programs provide opportunities to follow different pathways to learning in the preschool foundations in order to make them helpful for all of California’s children. To that end, the California preschool learning foundations incorporate a concept known as universal design for learning.

Developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), universal design for learning is based on the understanding that children learn in different ways (CAST 2007). Universal design for learning is not a single approach that will accommodate everyone; rather, it refers to providing multiple approaches to learning in order to meet the needs of diverse learners. Information is provided to children in a variety of ways so the learning needs of all of the children are met. Children are allowed to use alternative methods to show what they know or what they are feeling. Children also are given choices for activities so that learning is based on children’s interests.

The examples given in the preschool learning foundations have been worded in such a way as to incorporate multiple means of receiving and expressing. This has been accomplished by the inclusion of a variety of examples for each foundation and the use of words that are inclusive rather than exclusive, as follows:

  • The terms “communicates” and “responds” are often used rather than the term “says.” “Communicates” and “responds” are inclusive of any language and any form of communication, including speaking, sign language, finger spelling, pictures, electronic communication devices, eye-pointing, gesturing, and so forth.
  • The terms “identifies” and “indicates or points to” are often used to represent multiple means of indicating objects, people, or events in the environment. Examples include, among other means of indicating, the use of gestures, eye-pointing, nodding, or responding “yes” or “no” when another points to or touches an object.

Teachers should read each foundation and the accompanying examples, then consider the means by which a child with a disability might best acquire information and demonstrate competence in these areas. A child’s special education teacher, parents, or related service provider may be contacted for consultation and suggestions.

The Foundations and Preschool Learning in California

The foundations are at the heart of the CDE’s approach to promoting preschool learning. Teachers use best practices, curricular strategies, and instructional techniques that assist children in learning the knowledge and skills described in the preschool learning foundations.

The “how to’s” of teaching young children include setting up environments, supporting children’s self-initiated play, selecting appropriate materials, and planning and implementing teacher-guided learning activities. During every step in the planning for young children’s learning, teachers have an opportunity to tap into the prominent role of play. Teachers can best support young children both by encouraging the rich learning that occurs in children’s self-initiated play and by introducing purposeful instructional activities that playfully engage preschoolers in learning.

Professional development is a key component in fostering preschool learning. The foundations can become a unifying element for both pre-service and in-service professional development. Preschool program directors and teachers can use the foundations to facilitate curriculum planning and implementation.

At the center of the CDE’s evolving system for supporting young children during the preschool years, the foundations are designed to help teachers be intentional and focus their efforts on the knowledge and skills that all young children need to acquire for success in preschool and, later on, in school.


Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). 2007. Universal design for learning. (accessed June 8, 2007).
Early Learning Standards: Creating the Conditions for Success. 2002. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. 2000. Edited by J. P. Shonkoff and D. A. Phillips. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Scott-Little, C.; S. L. Kagan; and V. S. Frelow. 2006. “Conceptualization of Readiness and the Content of Early Learning Standards: The Intersection of Policy and Research?” Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Vol. 21, 153–73.

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Last Reviewed: Tuesday, November 21, 2023
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