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Cultivating Creativity and Innovation: Environments and Materials

The materials you include in your program help set the stage for an engaging learning environment for all children, which supports their exploration, experimentation, and curiosity. This lesson will highlight materials that promote creativity for all children, and it will share information about choosing materials that support the strengths, needs, and cultures of the children in your care.

  • Recognize how a supportive environment looks and feels.
  • Identify developmentally appropriate materials that promote creativity for children of all ages and abilities.
  • Define culturally responsive creative materials.



When do you feel most creative? Is it when you are alone, or in the presence of others? Perhaps when you are at home, at work, or while driving somewhere? Are there spaces or environments that make you feel creative? Maybe your kitchen or backyard, a coffee shop, or a craft store? What elements of an environment make you feel creative? Is it the lighting? Perhaps music in the background? Colors or textures around you? Scents in the air? Individuals around you engaging in similar types of activities with you? There are no limits to what can inspire creativity. 

Environments that Encourage Curiosity, Exploration, and Experimentation

By encouraging creativity and imagination, we are promoting children’s ability to explore and comprehend their world and increasing their opportunities to make new connections and reach new understandings. (Duffy, 2006)

An environment that supports creativity gives children a sense of trust and assurance while exciting their curiosity and inviting them to explore. Supportive environments are filled with possibilities for positive interactions with trusted caregivers and peers, and they offer engaging experiences and activities that help meet children’s needs and wants. Creating these types of environments involves a process of reflection and intentional planning. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Consider the needs and development of the children in your care. Create a safe, comfortable, and flexible setting that supports relationships and invites curiosity and exploration. For more information on supportive, safe learning environments, see the Family Child Care Learning Environments course.
  • Use materials that are appropriate for the developmental ages and stages of the children in your care.
  • Identify areas of the environment with surfaces that are easy to clean for exploring messy materials such as paint.
  • Ensure that children have access to creative materials by placing items at children’s eye level.
  • Include materials that provide children with multiple opportunities to explore and experiment safely.
  • Invite families to share art, music, foods, and celebrations that are meaningful to them to support culturally responsive environments and experiences.

Creative experiences such as art, music, dance, science, dramatic play, or block play do not exist in isolation. On the contrary, they can take place within social studies, literacy, math, or other areas. When these experiences are interwoven and varied, they provide opportunities for rich and meaningful learning to take place in the family child care home. This type of play-based learning helps children make new and, often, unexpected connections, which can promote creativity and foster a more engaging learning environment.

As a family child care provider, you are responsible for developing experiences that are not only play-based and interesting, but also centered around the interests of the children in your program. When you respect and value their interests, children are more likely to be invested in their learning and engaged in your program’s curriculum. You can learn about children’s interests through observation, conversations with children or family members, and discussions with other family child care providers.

Drama and Discovery in the Learning Environment

Drama and discovery are two important aspects of a learning environment. They are both terms that can be used to describe a large variety of activities and experiences. Within your program, you likely already have materials to support these areas.

Drama includes acting, imitation, pantomime, improvisation, characterization, and play production. As children grow, you will see changes in the ways they manipulate dramatic play areas. In addition to playing house or grocery store, they might re-enact scenes from their favorite books, movies, or television shows. By actively engaging in these experiences with the children, you will bring learning to life (Edmiston, 2013, p.14).

Discovery can include just about anything! Children are curious risk-takers who will want to discover everything they can about the world around them. They will want to make scientific hypotheses, predict what will happen next in a book or a movie, and discover nature and the world around them. Another aspect of discovery is cause and effect. Infants are beginning to explore this concept. For them, it may look like turning their cup over to watch the milk spill out. Toddlers may explore cause and effect by transforming dirt into mud. School-age children are developmentally able to understand the concept of cause and effect and will enjoy conducting experiments to test their theories. All children can and will benefit from exploration and discovery of the world around them.

Building and Construction Materials

Building and construction experiences require imagination, design, and creativity. To enhance areas where blocks and other traditional building materials are used, try adding items like natural pieces of wood, cardboard tubes, boxes, and duct tape to see how children might use them. To encourage building on a smaller scale, set out items like toothpicks and marshmallows for constructing. You might also consider adding images of the community to the area to promote creativity. Should there be an interest in constructing a familiar place such as a zoo or park, you can add books or other materials to the area for reference.

Sparking Discovery

Children discover the world around them as they play, learn, interact with others, and explore. Taking risks, being curious, and making guesses are necessary parts of development for children. As a family child care provider, you want to encourage these behaviors by creating a learning environment that provides opportunities for discovery. Discoveries can happen throughout the learning environment, but it is difficult to plan for them because you cannot predict what children will think of. Enhance and encourage discovery by providing thought-provoking materials and by planning activities that encourage creative thinking, brainstorming, and making hypotheses.

The types of activities that can be associated with discoveries are endless. In the Apply activity for this lesson, you will be asked to do a discovery inventory. You will be looking for materials in the learning environment, both indoors and outdoors, that can spark inquiry and discovery. A few examples of those types of materials are:

  • Nonfiction books
  • Paint
  • Science kits and experiments
  • Sensory items
  • Magnifying glasses and telescopes
  • Specimen and insect containers
  • Pets and other animals
  • Magnets
  • Cooking experiences
  • Natural elements like leaves, insects, dirt, clay, water, sand, shells, rocks, etc.

Encouraging discovery in the learning environment supports development and creativity. Do not forget to ask children what they are interested in. This might help you think of items and materials to include in the environment to spark discovery.

Materials that Foster Creativity

The materials you provide help set the stage for an engaging learning environment that supports children’s exploration, experimentation, and curiosity. While these materials offer opportunities for children to engage in the things that are most interesting to them, and at their own pace, it is you, the provider, who gives meaning to the creative experience. You can observe and respond to children’s independent exploration and experimentation of materials to enhance their learning. There will also be times when you plan specific activities to support their curiosity, discovery, and development.

The selection of materials, as well as their intentional display within the environment, will be different for children of different ages and learning abilities. Young infants need interesting, creative materials brought to them while on the floor. Mobile infants are moving as they explore and need safe areas to enhance their creativity. Toddlers want to demonstrate their independence, and providers can plan for and support their use of creative materials in specific activities and experiences. It is important to be flexible with preschoolers and let them help you decide on the creative experiences they would like to explore. School-agers need less direction and more support and affirmation of their creative endeavors. It is important to keep in mind that children will carry creative materials all over the room, as this is part of their natural development and need to explore. Labeling shelves with pictures of the items can help as you strive to get materials back where they belong when cleanup happens.

The table below lists different types of materials that can be used to foster creativity for all children of varying ages in your family child care home. It is also important to discuss the display and use of developmentally appropriate creative materials with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.

Creative Materials

Infant & Toddler

  • Vinyl, board, and cloth books (vinyl and cloth books work well for young infants who will also explore by using their mouths)
  • Puppets and soft dolls
  • Books with various illustrations (photographs, drawings, etc.) and print that are representative of the children and families in your care
  • Blankets with different textured materials and contrasting colors and patterns


  • Sofa or soft quiet areas for reading
  • Books with various illustrations (photographs, drawings, etc.) and print that are representative of the children and families in your care
  • Books with more complex words or ideas, rotated out based on interest


  • Sofa or quiet areas for reading
  • Chapter books
  • Informational books
  • Paper for writing ideas
  • Magazines

Infant & Toddler

  • Loose Parts such as cardboard tubes, natural materials (leaves, sticks, pinecones, river stones, barkbark, and wood cookies), shower curtain rings, large springs, and hair curlers
  • Pop-up toys and jack-in-the-boxes
  • Grasping toys (rattles, squeeze toys)
  • Stacking toys
  • Interlocking toys (blocks, rings, pop beads)
  • Foam or rubber blocks with various textures
  • Cars, trucks, road signs and community figurines
  • Plastic toy animals


  • Loose parts such as cardboard tubes, natural materials (leaves, sticks, pinecones, river stones, bark, and wood cookies), shower curtain rings, large springs, and hair curlers
  • Magnetic tiles
  • Puzzles
  • Interlocking toys (blocks, rings, logs)
  • Geometric shapes
  • Lacing beads or boards
  • Plastic toy animals


  • Loose parts and tools such as an old radio and screw drivers
  • Gears
  • Marble mazes
  • Complex or 3D puzzles
  • Magnetic letters or numbers

Infant & Toddler

  • Real-life materials that represent their experiences and culture (bottles, oatmeal containers, cereal boxes)
  • Mirrors
  • Dolls of various abilities and with different skin tones and hair texture
  • Pots, pans, spatulas, spoons, plates, bowls.
  • Purses, briefcases, tool bag and other dress-up clothing
  • Small table and chairs


  • Stage and puppets
  • Cleaning tools
  • Pretend phones
  • Pots, pans, spatulas, spoons, plates, bowls
  • Costumes and dress up clothing that are imaginative and represent real-world experiences (firefighter, robot, doctor, nurse, astronaut, pirate)
  • Things to simulate everyday real-world situations or places (dentist office, pet store, barber shop, post office, zoo)


  • Things to simulate everyday real-world situations or places (dentist office, pet store, barber shop, post office, zoo)
  • Props (masks, tool belt, stethoscope, purse)
  • Costumes and dress up clothing that are imaginative and represent real-world experiences (firefighter, robot, doctor, nurse, astronaut, pirate)

Infant & Toddler

  • Easel, paint brushes, paints, including finger paint
  • Smocks
  • Scissors, hole punch
  • Play dough and tools (cookie cutters, rollers)
  • Paper (e.g., magazines, newsprint, plain paper, construction paper, card stock, etc.)
  • Glue sticks
  • Crayons, markers, and chalk


  • Easel, paint brushes
  • Paints, including finger paint, watercolors, paint dobbers
  • Smocks
  • Scissors, hole punch
  • Various tape including colored masking tape
  • Clay or play dough and tools (cookie cutters, rollers)
  • Paper (e.g., magazines, newsprint, plain paper, construction paper, card stock, etc.)
  • Glue, glue sticks, glue dots
  • Crayons, markers, pens, pencils, and chalk
  • Scraps of fabric and ribbon in a variety of colors, shapes, patterns, and textures
  • Stencils
  • Dry-erase markers and whiteboards


  • Easel, clip board, chalkboard
  • Paint brushes of various sizes
  • Paints, including finger paint, watercolors, glitter paints
  • Scissors, hole punch
  • Glue, glue sticks, glue dots
  • Writing tools such as pens, colored pencils, markers, and pastels
  • Found objects that can be reused (buttons, bottom of soda bottle, egg creates)
  • Scraps of fabric and ribbon in a variety of colors, shapes, patterns, and textures
  • Stencils and patterns
  • Dry-erase markers and whiteboards

Infant & Toddler

  • Chimes
  • Rattles and homemade sound makers (plastic bottles filled with beans, buttons, or beads and secured with glue or tape, metal bowls and wooden spoons)
  • Different types of music and musical instruments
  • Colorful scarves


  • Different types of music
  • Complex and simple musical instruments (rhythm sticks, tambourine, thumb piano, bongos, boom whackers, and maracas)
  • Colorful scarves


  • CD collection
  • Boombox or MP3 speaker
  • Karaoke machine
  • Piano or keyboard

Infant & Toddler

  • Big trucks and cars
  • Large plastic blocks
  • Play people and animals
  • Hollow or light transparent blocks
  • Large interlocking blocks


  • Figures that look like people community helpers or animals
  • Small unit or counting blocks
  • Natural materials such as wood cookies, bark, and shels
  • Block of various sizes and materials (plastic, wooded, transparent, cardboard) 
  • Cars and trucks (including community vehicles, planes, trains, and train tracks)
  • Interlocking blocks or bricks


  • Smaller interlocking blocks
  • Complex figurines
  • Robots
  • Hard surface to build on
  • Maps

You can combine these creative materials, too, as a way to invite children to stay curious and explore. You can also think about ways to display and offer materials that are connected to their interests and will help extend previous learning. For example: 

  • A large cardboard box to climb in and out of and to color on
  • Pots, pans, cups, and spoons from dramatic play used as musical instruments
  • A plastic container with warm water and a mix of materials that sink or float
  • Ramps and tubing to use for rolling balls
  • A book about houses and buildings along with a selection of blocks
  • A plastic container or sensory table filled with water and materials to help scoop and pour
  • Colorful scarves that could be used in dramatic play or in dance and movement
  • Puppets and a stage to role play or problem solve

Remember that younger children learn by exploring and putting objects in their mouths. It is important to carefully observe and use materials that are nontoxic and are not choking hazards. Also, close observation and care should always be taken when young children play with water. Please see the Safe Environments course for additional information on creating safe environments.

"Babies are naturally curious. They are driven to explore, to learn, and to practice new skills. They need constant, safe opportunities to move about and try things for themselves - with adults available to steer them away from danger and support and celebrate their successes" (Johnson, 2010, p. xii).

As discussed in Lesson Two, the process of exploration and experimentation is more important for children than the final product. Therefore, the types of materials you include in your early care and learning setting will help set the stage for an engaging environment where children can focus on the process of learning. Focus on open-ended materials to encourage exploration, discovery, transformation, and imaginative play. These materials can become anything the children imagine. Children are encouraged to take risks in testing their theories as they engage with materials in new and unconventional ways.

Drew & Rankin (2004) identify seven principles for using open-ended materials in early-childhood programs:

  • Children’s spontaneous, creative self-expression increases their sense of competence and well-being into adulthood.
  • Children extend and deepen their understanding through multiple, hands-on experiences with diverse materials.
  • Children’s play with peers supports learning and a growing sense of competence.
  • Children learn literacy, science, and mathematics through active play with diverse, open-ended materials.
  • Children learn best in open-ended exploration when teachers (and providers) help them make connections.
  • Teachers (and providers) are nourished by observing children’s joy and learning.
  • Ongoing self-reflection among teachers (and providers) in the community is needed to support these practices.

Culturally Responsive Materials

Think of materials as a language for children (Weisman Topal, and Gandini, 1999). Materials enable children to express themselves, to share what they already know, to demonstrate existing skills, and to learn new skills. Materials should reflect children’s interests, as well as their backgrounds, life experiences, and cultures. Culturally responsive creative materials are materials that appeal to all learners from all cultures. Children should be able to see themselves, their families, their homes, and their communities in materials and activities each day.

Getting to know the children and youth in your care is one of your first responsibilities as a family child care provider. Observation and communication with families can help you learn more about what children and youth like to do, their strengths and needs, and how they behave during interactions and play experiences. By knowing and understanding the individual strengths, needs, and preferences of children and youth, you are able to be more responsive. Specific cultural information that you learn from families lets you sensitively meet individual needs so that children can see their environment as predictable, relatable, and safe.

Using Materials to Support the Creative Strengths, Needs, and Backgrounds of All Children

Partnering with families gives you the guidance and support you need to plan for responsive creative experiences and activities with materials that support diversity and inclusion. Actively taking time daily to observe, interact, listen, and reflect can also help you when planning and meeting the needs for each child in your care. Ask yourself:

  • What has the family shared with me about their child?
  • What are some of the family’s values, beliefs, and unique practices?
  • What have I learned about this child from our interactions and daily routines?
  • What have I learned from observing this child while they explore and experiment?
  • What does this child already know? What might they be curious about or interested in exploring and experimenting?

As a family child care provider, you can actively encourage curiosity, exploration, and experimentation that reflect different cultures, individual strengths, and the needs of all children in your program. Developmentally appropriate practices focus on the learning characteristics of children and individualize experiences for the unique interests, abilities, and temperament of each child. Think about what you already do to support the creativity of all children in your family child care home. What materials do you already offer to ensure they depict a wide variety of races, cultures, ages, and abilities? How do you welcome families’ culture in your program? Do the children see things that look like them in the environment? How do you support each child in being successful in the experience? Below are additional ideas that you can incorporate:

  • Provide play food, pretend people, and dress-up items from different cultures.
  • Use different types of materials for painting that may be easier to grasp than a paintbrush, such as sponges.
  • Include mirrors in the classroom which allow children to reflect on their own physical features.
  • Represent a range of skin tones in paper, paint, markers, crayons, and playdough.
  • Place materials within a child’s reach to encourage their interest and independence.
  • Consider room arrangement for children who need space to facilitate active learning.
  • Play a variety of music for listening, movement, and dancing.
  • Create visuals to use with children as they make choices about creative materials with which to explore and experiment.
  • Incorporate the use of home languages with children and their families, including American Sign Language.
  • Change the height or position of an easel to support a child who is unable to reach or stand for long periods of time. This can be helpful for a younger toddler who might need to sit and paint or older children who might want to stand and sketch.
  • Read stories in different languages. Remember that all children benefit from exposure to different languages. This might be a time to invite families to read a book from home.
  • Tape paper to the table and use tape or clips to hold paper to the easel.
  • Have magazines, maps, and circulars available in learning areas for inspiration.
  • Use small baskets, backpacks, or fanny packs to help children organize and move creative materials from one activity or area to another.
  • Have creative materials, such as paper, pencils, and markers available in all learning areas so children can capture their creative ideas as they happen.
  • Use a soft, favorite comfort item, such as a small stuffed animal, to play peekaboo with an infant, or use puppets to act out stories for preschool children.
  • Provide books and photos that show families from different backgrounds with diverse abilities.
  • Display photos of children’s families at the child’s level.
  • Attach Velcro to blocks to help them stay together easily.
    Use a mitten with Velcro to support an infant who is struggling to pick up and manipulate objects. You could create colored felt shapes or colorful scarves that can stick to the Velcro.

Using many types of creative materials in different ways during experiences and activities with infants and toddlers can expose them to similarities and differences in a positive way.

Displaying Art Work

Displaying art is a way to allow children to share their creative work. There are many benefits to displaying art work, such as:

  • It enriches the environment and provides ownership for the children in your care.
  • It gives children a sense of pride and confidence.
  • It encourages and inspires children to be creative.
  • It facilitates learning as children revisit their work and reflect on it.

There are many ways you can display children's work throughout the learning environment. A few examples are:

  • Use a wall or bulletin board to display work.
  • Hang pieces throughout the environment with rope or ribbon and clothespins.
  • Frame pieces of art and hang them on the wall—consider rotating pieces out so all children have a chance to be featured.
  • Use shelves or tables to display three-dimensional items, such as sculptures or pottery.

When displaying work, give children the chance to create a nameplate with their name and the title of their piece. This will show that you value their work and allow them to feel proud of their creative accomplishment. Additionally, the nameplates can be used for saving work that the child may wish to revisit later.


Environments and Materials

Watch how materials can promote children’s creativity.


As a family child care provider, think about the following as you continue to consider ways to spark creativity for the young children in your care:

  • Be responsive to children’s individual differences and cultural backgrounds.
  • Provide safe spaces and opportunities for children to explore.
  • Design environments in a way that all children can safely access creative materials.
  • Offer materials that allow for the exploration and experimentation of texture, size, colors, and shapes, as well as materials that can be safely taken apart, opened, filled, and dumped.
  • Provide older infants and toddlers with utensils to experiment with feeding themselves.
  • Observe and honor children’s time spent exploring.
  • Work with materials in unconventional ways such as blocks to measure distance.
  • Rotate and introduce materials regularly based on child interests.


What materials do you provide for children that promote creative expression? Do the materials fit the needs of all the children in your care? Reflect on recent experiences and activities in your family child care home that sparked children’s creativity, focusing on the materials you used. Read and review the Reflecting on Materials That Spark Creativity activity. For each box, list or describe materials you provide that spark creativity, and write down ideas about additional materials you can use. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.

If you are a CDA candidate, use the CDA Competency Statement II handout to reflect on how you support children's physical and intellectual development, a required item for the CDA Professional Portfolio.


According to leading researchers on play at the Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University, “basic is best” when it comes to young children’s toys and materials. Each year, the Toys that Inspire Mindful Play and Nurture Imagination (TIMPANI) study examines how young children engage with toys and identifies toys that promote high-quality imaginative play in young children. Use the document, Materials that Promote Creativity, to learn more about this study and for suggestions of creative materials.


Creating a character in detail (personality, appearance, etc.) for a play or written work
Cultural Responsive Experiences:
Using the perspectives and beliefs of children and their families as a tool to support learning
Dancing, singing, telling jokes, or any type of performing without a plan, script, or written music
Loose Parts:
Natural or synthetic found, bought, or upcycled materials that children can move, manipulate, control, and change within their play (Beloglovsky & Daly, 2016)
Open-ended Materials:
Materials that encourage exploration, discovery, transformation, and imaginative play; these materials can become anything the children want them to become
Performing through gestures, using no words


Finish this statement: The selection of creative materials for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers …
True or false? You may need to make adaptations to creative materials for children with special needs.
A parent asks why you include the dramatic arts in your activity plans. Now that their child is 9, they no longer play house or doctor. What do you say?
Finish this statement: When planning drama and discovery activities for children, it is important to...
References & Resources

Berk, L. E. (2012). Child development (9th ed.). Allyn & Bacon.

Brown, S. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. Avery.

Daly, L., & Beloglovsky, M. (2019). Loose parts 4: Inspiring 21st-century learning. Redleaf Press.

Drew, W. R., Rankin, B. (2004). Promoting creativity for life using open-ended materials. Young Children, 59(4). ttp://

Duffy, B. (2006). Supporting creativity and imagination in the early years. Open University Press.

Edmiston, B. (2013). Transforming teaching and learning with active and dramatic approaches: Engaging students across the curriculum (1st ed.). Routledge.

Epstein, A. S. (2014). The intentional teacher: Choosing the best strategies for young children’s learning. (revised ed.). National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Gandini, L., Hill, L., Cadwell, L. B., & Schwall, C. S. (2015). The Grammar of materials. In the spirit of the studio: Learning from the atelier of Reggio Emilia (Early Childhood Education Series) (2nd ed.). Teachers College Press.

Harms, T., Clifford, R. M., & Cryer, D. (2017). Infant/toddler environment rating scale (3rd ed.).Teachers College Press.

Johnson, J. (2010). Babies in the rain: Promoting play, exploration, and discovery with infants and toddlers. Redleaf Press.

Minahan, L., Byrd, J., Dwyer, S., Romp, S., Viets, L., & Strekalova-Hughes, E. (2021). Sparking creativity with cross-area play. Teaching Young Children, 15(1).

National Association for the Education of Young Children (2022). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8 (4th ed.). The National Association of Education of Young Children.

Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective (6th ed.). Pearson.

Van Hoorn, J. L., Nourot, P. M., Scales, B., & Alward, K. R. (2014). Play at the center of the curriculum (6th ed.). Prentice Hall.

Weisman, T. C., & Gandini, L. (1999). Beautiful stuff! Learning with found materials. Davis Publications, Inc.