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Foundations Volume 2 Introduction

Introduction to Volume 2 of the California Preschool Learning Foundations.


The preschool learning foundations are a critical step in the California Department of Education’s (CDE’s) efforts to strengthen preschool education and close the school-readiness gap in California, thereby narrowing the achievement gap during the K–12 school years. The foundations describe competencies—knowledge and skills—that most children can be expected to exhibit in a high-quality program as they complete their first or second year of preschool. In other words, the foundations are destination points of learning that, with appropriate support, children move toward and often reach during the
preschool years.

The foundations are designed to promote understanding of young children’s development of knowledge and skills and to help with considering appropriate ways to support children’s learning. In essence, the foundations serve as a cornerstone for educating practitioners about children’s learning and development. The foundations are designed to be used in combination with other sources of information: formal educational course work on early learning and development, information on individual differences, including those related to disabilities, knowledge about the contribution of cultural and linguistic experiences to early development, and English-language development, including the CDE’s resource guide Preschool English Learners: Principles and Practices to Promote Language, Literacy, and Learning (2009), insights from children’s families, and the practical experiences of preschool teachers and program directors.

The support needed to attain the competencies varies from child to child. Many children learn simply by participating in high-quality preschool programs. Such programs offer children environments and experiences that 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.

With regard to the visual and performing arts, physical development, and health foundations in this volume, children can demonstrate their knowledge and skills using any language or, for most of the foundations, through nonverbal means. Many children effectively apply their often more-advanced ability in their home language to understand, for example, art, music, drama, and dance concepts; movement concepts; and health concepts. Other children may have a disability or special need that requires particular adaptations.1 To serve all children, preschool programs must work to provide appropriate conditions for learning and assist each child to move along a pathway of learning and healthy development.

1Adaptations should be coordinated with the child's family and any specialist working with the child.

All 50 states have either developed preschool standards or are in the process of doing so. Many states have aligned early learning standards with their kindergarten content standards. In most cases, those alignment efforts have focused on academic content areas, such as English–language arts or mathematics. In California, priority has been placed on aligning expectations for preschool learning with the state’s kindergarten academic content standards and on complementing those content areas with attention to social-emotional development and English-language development. Like the learning in such domains as language and literacy and mathematics, the concepts in social-emotional development and English-language development also contribute significantly to young children’s readiness for school (From Neurons to Neighborhoods 2000; Eager to Learn 2000; Early Learning Standards 2002). Because the focus on preschool learning in California includes the full range of developmental domains, the term foundations is used rather than standards. This term is intended to convey that learning in every domain affects young children’s readiness for school.

Content of This Volume

The preschool learning foundations presented in this volume cover the following domains:

  • Visual and Performing Arts
  • Physical Development
  • Health

Those 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. Preschool children’s knowledge and skills can be considered from the perspective of one domain, such as physical development or visual and performing arts. Yet when taking an in-depth look at one domain, one needs to keep in mind that learning is an integrated experience for young children. For example, a young child may concentrate on a performing art, such as dance, but the experience also pertains to learning in the cognitive, social, linguistic, physical, and health domains. The relationships between learning domains are particularly apparent with physical development and visual and performing arts. Indeed, many of the same movement concepts and skills appear in the foundations of both domains.

The foundations written for each of the domains are based on research and evidence and are enhanced with expert practitioners’ suggestions and examples. The purpose of the foundations 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 springboard to prepare all young children for success in school.

Visual and Performing Arts Domain

The foundations for visual and performing arts address a wide range of competencies that preschool children will need support to learn. The foundations focus on the following four strands:

  • Visual Art, which includes noticing, responding to, and engaging in visual art; developing skills; and creating, inventing, and expressing through visual art
  • Music, which covers noticing, responding to, and engaging in music; developing skills; and creating, inventing, and expressing through music
  • Drama, which focuses on noticing, responding to, and engaging in drama; and developing skills to create, invent, and express through drama
  • Dance, which centers on noticing, responding to, and engaging in dance; developing skills; and creating, inventing, and expressing through dance

The foundations written for this domain reflect the many ways in which young children experience the joys of learning, creativity, self-expression, and playful exploration. The arts provide varied and meaningful opportunities for children to engage in integrated learning experiences that contribute to their development in all domains.

Physical Development Domain

The physical development domain consists of the following three strands:

  • Fundamental Movement Skills, which include balance, locomotor skills, and manipulative skills
  • Perceptual–Motor Skills and Movement Concepts, which focus on body awareness, spatial awareness, and directional awareness
  • Active Physical Play, which addresses active participation, cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, and flexibility

The competencies covered by the physical development domain center on what preschool children do much of the day. This area of development describes many avenues for young children’s play, engagement with others, exploration, and learning.

Health Domain

Young children’s development of health knowledge, attitudes, habits, and behaviors is receiving increasing attention in research and practice. The health foundations are divided into the following three strands:

  • Health Habits, which cover basic hygiene, oral health, knowledge of wellness, and sun safety
  • Safety, which focuses on injury prevention
  • Nutrition, which addresses nutrition knowledge, nutrition choices, and the self-regulation of eating

Preschool programs can promote young children’s learning in this domain by giving young children opportunities to observe and participate in health-related practices and interactions. Children learn health-related routines and habits when caring adults convey the importance of those routines through modeling and encouragement.

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Organization of the Foundations

Each strand of a domain consists of substrands, and the foundations are organized under the substrands. 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 at 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. In all cases, the foundation at around 60 months of age builds on the corresponding foundation at around 48 months of age. In other words, for each foundation the age levels are two points on a continuum of learning. Of course, 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, Preschool (DRDP PS), which is currently being aligned to the foundations, gives teachers a means to observe children’s learning along a continuum of four developmental levels (Exploring, Developing, Building, and Integrating). On the continuum, children at the Exploring level start to become familiar with a new knowledge area and, in a basic way, try out skills they are starting to learn. At the next level, Developing, children begin to demonstrate basic mastery in a knowledge and skill area. At the Building level, children refine and expand their knowledge and skills in an area of learning. At the Integrating level, they connect the knowledge and skills they have mastered in one area with those in other areas. The Desired Results Developmental Profile access provides a means to observe the knowledge and skills of preschool children with disabilities whose development is best described within a range from birth to five years. 

The examples listed under each foundation suggest a range of possible ways in which children can demonstrate the competency addressed by a foundation. The examples illustrate the different contexts in which children may show the competencies reflected in the foundations. Examples highlight that children learn while they engage in imaginative play, explore the environment and materials, make discoveries, are inventive, or interact with peers, teachers, or other adults. Many examples include children using language to express themselves. Nevertheless, children can demonstrate learning in these domains in any language. For instance, children who are English learners will often be creative, inventive, or expressive through drama and singing in their home language. 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 the competency addressed by a foundation.

The Appendix, “The Foundations,” contains a summary list 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. It is important to 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.

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) developed the principles of universal design for learning based on the understanding that children learn in different ways (CAST 2007). In today’s diverse preschool settings and programs, the use of a curriculum accessible to all learners is critical to successful early learning. 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. Universal design provides for multiple means of representation, multiple means of engagement, and multiple means of expression (CAST 2007). Multiple means of representation refers to providing information in a variety of ways so the learning needs of all of the children are met. Multiple means of expression refers to allowing children to use alternative methods to demonstrate what they know or what they are feeling. Multiple means of engagement refers to providing choices for activities in the setting or program that facilitate learning by building on children’s interests.

The examples given in the preschool learning foundations have been worded to depict the many ways in which children receive information and express themselves.

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

When reading each foundation and the accompanying examples, teachers can consider the means by which a child with a disability might best acquire information and demonstrate competence in those areas. It is essential to include a child’s special education teacher, parents, or related service provider when environments, curriculum, and adaptations are being planned. In addressing the individual needs of children, early childhood educators need to consider the enormous variation in children’s growth and development across all developmental domains.

For example, a child with physical disabilities and visual impairments may understand many of the movement concepts without being able to demonstrate them in the same way as other children. Although the child may show delays in one area of development, this tendency does not necessarily indicate delays in cognitive development as well as other areas of development. The distinction is important to keep in mind because if an early childhood educator expects a child who cannot see or physically move to demonstrate a level of understanding, the child’s cognitive abilities may be underestimated because the child cannot consistently and broadly show the expected level. Even with the appropriate specialized instruction, materials, and adaptations, the child may still show cognitive delays. The preschool years are a time of critical cognitive growth and concept development, and one cannot assume that this development will still occur in children with disabilities when a sensory or motor disability is present. It is essential that teachers collaborate with family members and special educators to ensure that all children having disabilities are provided with effective preschool experiences and appropriate educational services and supports.

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-tos” 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.

Two major considerations underlie the “how-tos” of teaching. First, teachers can effectively foster early learning by thoughtfully considering the preschool learning foundations as they plan environments and activities. And second, 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 by both 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 of early care and education in fostering preschool learning. The foundations can become a unifying element for both preservice 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 early elementary school—and throughout life.


Center for Applied Special Technology. 2007. Universal design for learning External link opens in new window or tab. (Accessed June 8, 2007).
Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers. 2000. Edited by B. T. Bowman, M. S. Donovan, and M. S. Burns. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
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.
Preschool English Learners: Principles and Practices to Promote Language, Literacy, and Learning (Second edition). 2009. Sacramento: California Department of Education.
Scott-Little, C; S. L. Kagan; and V. S. Firelow. 2006. Conceptualization of readiness and the content of early learning standards: The intersection of policy and research. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 21: 153–73.

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Last Reviewed: Tuesday, November 21, 2023
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