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Introduction to Preschool Foundations, Volume 3

Introduction to Volume 3 of the California Preschool Learning Foundations.


The preschool learning foundations are critical to the California Department of Education’s (CDE’s) efforts to strengthen preschool education and close the school-readiness gap in California. 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 identify paths of learning that, with appropriate support, children typically move along during the preschool years.

The foundations are designed to promote understanding of young children’s development of knowledge and skills and to help teachers, program administrators, families, and policymakers consider appropriate ways to support children’s learning. In essence, the foundations serve as a cornerstone for informing early childhood educators about children’s learning and development. The foundations are to be used in combination with other sources of information. These sources include formal educational course work on early learning and development; information on individual differences (especially 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 (2007); insights from children’s families; and the practical experiences of preschool teachers and program directors.

The support that young children need 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. As for the history–social science and science foundations, children can demonstrate their knowledge and skills by using any language and, for most of the foundations, nonverbal forms of expression. Many children effectively apply their advanced ability in their home language to understand concepts from the history–social science and science domains. Other children may have a disability or special need that requires particular adaptations.* To serve all children, preschool programs must provide appropriate social interactions, experiences, and environments and sensitively assist each child’s learning and development.

*Adaptations should be coordinated with the child’s family and any specialist working with the child.

All 50 states either have developed preschool standards or are in the process of doing so. Many states have aligned early learning standards with kindergarten content standards. In most cases, these alignment efforts 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 Common Core State Standards for English–language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects and for mathematics, and with the state’s academic content standards for kindergarten. Equally important, those content areas are complemented by attention to social– emotional development and English–language development. Like the learning in domains such 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 (Shonkoff and Phillips 2000; Bowman, Donovan, and Burns 2000; NAEYC 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 and development in every domain is integrated with all other domains and affects young children’s readiness for school.

Content of This Volume

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

  • History–social science
  • Science

The domains above represent crucial areas of learning and development for young children. The foundations written for each of the domains are based on research evidence and are enhanced with expert practitioners’ suggestions and examples. The foundations in 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 history–social science or science. Yet when taking an in-depth look at a specific domain, one needs to keep in mind that learning is an integrated experience for young children. For example, at any given moment, a young child may concentrate on a single science concept, but the experience may also pertain to learning in the cognitive, social, linguistic, physical, and health domains. The relationships between learning domains are particularly apparent between the history–social science and social–emotional development domains and between the science and mathematics domains. Close inspection of the foundations shows that all of the preschool learning domains intersect with one another and that closely related foundations occasionally appear in two or more domains.

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Overview of the Foundations

The strands for each of the domains discussed previously are listed in this section.

History–Social Science Domain

The history–social science foundations address an area that is receiving increasing attention in preschool curricula. These foundations focus on the following five strands:

  1. Self and Society, which centers on culture and diversity, relationships, and social roles and occupations
  2. Becoming a Preschool Community Member (Civics), which pertains to skills for democratic participation, responsible conduct, fairness and respect for other people, and conflict resolution
  3. Sense of Time (History), which includes understanding past events, anticipating and planning future events, personal history, and historical changes in people and the world
  4. Sense of Place (Geography and Ecology), which covers navigating familiar locations, caring for the natural world, and understanding the physical world through drawings and map
  5. Marketplace (Economics), which focuses on the economic concept of exchange

The foundations for this domain reflect the many ways in which young children learn about basic concepts of history– social science. Young children explore concepts related to history–social science that are rooted in the cultural experiences of their families and communities. The history–social science foundations, which center on young children’s capacity to operate as members of a community, complement the social–emotional development foundations, which describe how young children express and regulate their emotions and develop social understanding and skills.

Science Domain

The science domain consists of the following four strands:

  1. Scientific Inquiry, which pertains to observation and investigation and to documentation and communication
  2. Physical Sciences, which focuses on the properties and characteristics of nonliving objects and materials and the changes in nonliving objects and materials
  3. Life Sciences, which addresses properties and characteristics of living things and changes in living things
  4. Earth Sciences, which covers properties and characteristics of earth materials and objects and changes in the earth

The competencies covered by the science domain center on content that connects with the natural curiosity of preschool children. Early in life, children rely on cultural experiences in their homes and communities to engage in inquiry and understand the properties and characteristics of nonliving and living objects and materials, and earth materials and objects. The scientific concepts and methods addressed by the preschool curriculum give children added perspective as they build their knowledge and skills in the science domain.

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Organization of the Foundations

Each strand 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 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. 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 preschool Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP–PS), which has been aligned with the preschool foundations, volume 1, and will be aligned with the foundations in volumes 2 and 3, gives teachers a means to observe children’s learning along a continuum. On the continuum, children at the earliest level of development 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, children begin to demonstrate basic mastery in a knowledge and skill area. That level is followed by one in which children refine and expand their knowledge and skills in an area of learning; at the latest developmental level on the continuum, 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 birth-to-age-five range.

The examples listed under each foundation suggest possible ways in which children may demonstrate the competency addressed by a foundation. The examples illustrate different kinds of contexts in which children may show the competencies reflected in the foundations. Examples highlight that children learn while engaging in imaginative play, exploring the environment and materials, making discoveries, being inventive, or interacting with peers, teachers, or other adults. Many examples include children using language to express themselves. Of particular note, children can demonstrate learning in these domains in any language and often do so nonverbally. For instance, children who are English learners will often understand history–social science and science through their home language and culturally meaningful experiences at home and in their community and express such knowledge in their home language. Although the examples often illustrate the diversity of young children’s learning experiences, they are not exhaustive. In fact, teachers often observe other ways in which young children demonstrate the competency addressed by a foundation.

In addition, one needs to be cautious about how the examples are used. They are intended to illustrate possible behaviors rather than to function as assessment items or to present curricular strategies. Using the examples to compare individual children to a group or to measure individual children’s progress would be inappropriate. Young children demonstrate their knowledge and skills in various ways. Some may act in ways that reflect the examples. Others may demonstrate their competencies through behaviors that are quite different from the examples and in many different languages. To use the examples effectively, one must be mindful of the context of the early learning setting, community, and the culture or cultures of each group of preschool children.

Note: Appendix A, “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 for the preschool foundations to provide opportunities to follow different pathways to learning, so that the foundations will be helpful for all of California’s children. To that end, the foundations incorporate a concept known as universal design for learning.

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) developed the principles for 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 provides 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 children are met. Multiple means of engagement refers to providing choices of activities in the setting or program that facilitate learning by building on children’s interests. Multiple means of expression refers to allowing children to use alternative methods to demonstrate what they know or what they feel.

The examples given in the preschool learning foundations have been worded to incorporate multiple means of receiving and expressing. This has been accomplished by the variety of examples for each foundation and the use of inclusive language, as follows:

  • 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, indicates, and 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 planning environments, curriculum, and adaptations. 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, when consulting with a special education teacher, family members, or related-service provider, one may learn that a child with physical disabilities and visual impairments can understand many 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, it does not necessarily indicate delays in other areas of development such as cognitive development. This 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 as he or she may be limited in the ability to consistently and broadly show the expected level. Even so, without the appropriate specialized instruction, materials, and adaptations, a child may show cognitive delays. The preschool years are a time of critical cognitive growth and concept development, and one cannot assume that this development will simply 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 with disabilities are provided with effective preschool experiences and appropriate educational services and supports.

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Alignment of the Preschool Learning Foundations with Other Key Resources

The California Preschool Learning Foundations, Volumes 1–3, are designed to align with content standards in key early childhood resources. A comprehensive analysis of the alignment of the California Preschool Learning Foundations with the California Infant/Toddler Learning and Development Foundations, the California content standards for kindergarten, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for kindergarten, and the Head Start Child Development and Early Learning Framework (Head Start Learning Framework) may be viewed at [Link no longer available]. Appendix B presents an overview of this alignment. It identifies the connections between foundations/standards drawn from different resources and illustrates the developmental progression along a continuum, from birth to kindergarten, in different developmental domains (e.g., Language and Literacy, Mathematics, Physical Development). For example, the overview summarizes the alignment across the infant/toddler learning and development foundations in language and literacy, the preschool learning foundations in language and literacy and the kindergarten CCSS in English language arts. The overview of the alignment also details the links between the California Preschool Learning Foundations and the Head Start Learning Framework. These key resources share the common purpose of supporting young children’s learning and development, and the alignment document highlights their shared goals and content.

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 in the planning of environments and activities. And second, during every step in 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 of fostering preschool learning. The foundations can become a unifying element for both preservice and in-service professional development. Preschool program directors and teachers are encouraged to use the foundations to facilitate curriculum planning and implementation. The foundations are designed to help teachers intentionally focus their efforts on the knowledge and skills that all young children need for success in preschool and early elementary school and throughout life.


  • Bowman, B. T., M. S. Donovan, and M.S. Burns, eds. 2000. Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  • California Department of Education. 2007. Preschool English Learners: Principles and Practices to Promote Language, Literacy, and Learning. 2nd ed. Sacramento: California Department of Education.
  • Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). 2007. Universal Design for Learning External link opens in new window or tab. (accessed June 8, 2007).
  • NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children). 2002. Early Learning Standards: Creating the Conditions for Success. Washington, DC: NAEYC.
  • 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.
  • Shonkoff, J. P., and D. A. Phillips, eds. 2000. From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

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Last Reviewed: Tuesday, November 21, 2023
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