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    • Recognize examples of developmentally appropriate materials that promote creativity for children of all ages and developmental abilities.
    • Define culturally responsive creative materials.
    • Identify materials that support creative strengths and needs for all children.




    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? What about experiences and activities? Are there some experiences that bring out your creative side more than others? There are no limits to what can inspire creativity.

    Children are curious and enjoy the exploration of materials within their environments. We know that the process of exploration and experimentation for children is more important than the “final product.” For example, as infants make marks on a paper with crayons, they are simply exploring what happens when the crayon touches the paper. They are not interested in creating something specific, such as a shape or letter. As infants have more experiences using crayons and grow to be toddlers, they are able to better control crayons, and their marks and scribbles begin to take shape as they learn to draw lines and circles. The process of picking up a crayon and applying it to paper is more important than what is drawn. A preschooler might give the cow they are creating three eyes, or a school-age child might make up words to a tune they know. They process is more important that the finished product. These experiences offer an opportunity for children to use their imaginations. The assorted 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. 

    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. (Bernadette 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 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 or stages of the children in your care.
    • Identify areas of the environment with surfaces that are easy to clean for use with materials such as paint.
    • Include materials that provide children multiple opportunities to explore and experiment safely.
    • Learn from families how to create culturally responsive environments and experiences. Invite families to share art, music, foods, and celebrations that are meaningful to them.

    High-quality experiences should incorporate creativity throughout. Creative experiences such as art, music, dance, science, dramatic play, or science 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 opportunities in the family child care home.

    As a family child care provider, you are responsible for developing experiences that are not only interwoven, varied, 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 learning experiences. You can learn about children’s interests through observation, conversations with children or family members, and conversations 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.

    Drama includes acting, 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. 

    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 and predictions when reading a book or watching a movie; they will want to discover nature and the world around them. Another aspect of discovery is cause and effect. School-age children are developmentally able to understand the concept of cause and effect, behavior, and consequence and will enjoy conducting experiments to test their theories. But all children can and will benefit from exploration and discovery of the world around them.

    Types of Dramatic Art Activities for Children

    You should plan a variety of dramatic art activities for children, including both free-time experiences and adult-led activities. Some examples are:

    • Storytelling: Children can retell classic tales, perhaps using puppets and props sharing memories or experiences in a dramatic way.
    • Role-playing games: Children can pretend to take on specific roles and interact with each other as their character. Role-playing can also be used to work out conflicts.
    • Creative drama games: Children can play games that encourage acting, emotion, and dramatic behavior. An example of a creative drama game is having children pull a famous person’s name out of a hat and acting like them while others guess who they are supposed to be.
    • Play performance production: Creating masks, costumes and characters, writing scripts, or designing set or scenery pieces are examples of play production activities, as is organizing and putting on talent shows.

    Building and Construction Experiences

    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 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.

    Dramatic Discoveries

    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. It is difficult to plan for discovery, 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, 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. Don’t 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

    “As they play, these young explorers can be totally absorbed. Opening and shutting, filling and dumping, and picking up and dropping are endlessly fascinating activities that challenge infants’ mobility and dexterity as well as their ideas about objects and what they can do.” (Copple & Bredekamp, NAEYC, 2009, p. 61)

    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 development and learning. There will also be times when you plan specific activities to support to their curiosity, discovery, development, and learning.

    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’s 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; you can also learn more about creating engaging care and learning environments by reviewing the Family Child Care Learning Environments course. It will also be 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
    • Blankets using different textured materials and contrasting colors and patterns


    • Sofa or soft quiet areas for reading
    • Books with various illustrations (photographs, drawings, etc.) and print
    • Books with more complex words or ideas


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

    Infant & Toddler

    • 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


    • Magnetic tiles
    • Puzzles
    • Interlocking toys (blocks, rings, logs)
    • Geometric shapes
    • Lacing beads or boards
    • Plastic toy animals


    • Gears
    • Marble mazes
    • Complex or 3D puzzles
    • Magnetic letters or numbers

    Infant & Toddler

    • Real-life materials that represent their experiences (bottles, oatmeal containers, cereal boxes)
    • Mirrors
    • Dolls
    • 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, 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 representing real-world experiences (firefighter, robot, doctor, 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, water colors, paint dobbers
    • Smocks
    • Scissors, hole punch
    • 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, and chalk
    • Scraps of fabric and ribbon in a variety of colors, shapes, patterns, and textures
    • Stencils
    • Dry-erase markers and white boards


    • Easel, clip board, chalkboard
    • Paint brushes of various sizes
    • Paints, including finger paint, water colors, glitter paints
    • Scissors, hole punch
    • Glue, glue sticks, glue dots
    • Pastels, colored pencils, crayons, markers, and chalk
    • 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 white boards

    Infant & Toddler

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


    • Different types of music
    • Complex and simple musical instruments (rhythm sticks, tambourine, maracas)
    • Colorful scarves


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

    Infant & Toddler

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


    • Figures that look like people community helpers or animals
    • Small unit or counting blocks
    • Block of various sizes and materials (plastic, wooded, transparent, cardboard) 
    • Cars and trucks (include 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
    • A mobile hung above an activity blanket on the floor so infants can reach to touch and move them. This activity requires adult supervision. Mobile should be removed if you need to momentarily leave the space.
    • 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
    • Balls and tubing to use for rolling the 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).

    A variety of carefully chosen materials can foster creativity in children. 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 backgrounds, life experiences, and cultures. Materials should encourage different kinds of group or individual work in your program. This can involve spontaneous or more directed play.

    Materials should be stimulating and novel with different textures, patterns, shapes, weights, and colors. A variety of interesting materials can spark children’s creativity: blocks and other building materials, dress up clothes, cars, trucks or trains, arts and crafts materials, music and dance materials, dolls and puppets. Everyday inexpensive items can also foster creativity: empty cartons of all shapes and sizes, straws, fabric pieces, buttons, paper towel tubes, or empty plastic containers. Open-ended materials encourage exploration, discovery, transformation, and imaginative play. These materials can become anything the children imagine.

    Walter Drew and Baji Rankin 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 joyfully 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 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.

    The National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems recommends considering three dimensions of cultural responsiveness: 

    • Culture is a blend of thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, values, and behavior patterns that are shared by racial, ethnic, religious, or social groups of people.
    • Cultural responsiveness is complex, involving the acceptance and acknowledgment of other people’s cultures and cultural values.
    • There are many dimensions of culture including: language, space and proximity, gender roles, family roles, grooming and presence, and value of education.

    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 and Needs 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? From observations and interactions while exploring and experimenting?
    • What does this child already know? What might he or she 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 families’ cultures, individual strengths, and the needs of all children in your program. Developmentally appropriate practices focus on the learning characteristics of children and individualizes experiences for the unique interests, strengths, 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 are the creative materials you already offer to ensure they depict a wide variety of races, cultures, ages, and abilities? 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.
    • Play a variety of music for listening, movement, and dancing.
    • Create visuals to use with children as they make choices about creative materials to explore and experiment with.
    • 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.
    • 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 marker 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.
    • 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 challenges children to do their best.

    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 shelving 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.


    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.
    • 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.



    What materials do you provide for children so they can engage in experiences 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, and focus 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.



    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 preschool children. Click on the link below to watch a video about the TIMPANI toy study. As you hear caregivers share reflections about purposefully choosing toys for creative play, think about the ways you make choices about toys and materials. Use the attached Materials that Promote Creativity document to learn more about this study and for suggestions of creative materials especially for preschool-age children.

    The highest scoring toys over the past few years have been:

    • 2018: Magz Clix (previously known as "Bottle Clix" by Magz)
    • 2017: Animal Kingdom Mega Pack Playset (Animal Planet)
    • 2016: Plus-Plus (Midi Size)
    • 2015: Wooden cash register (Hape Toys)
    • 2014: Paint easel (by Community Playthings) and Hot Wheels Cars (Mattel)


    Cultural ResponsivenessThe recognition and acknowledgment that society is pluralistic, that in addition to the dominant culture, there exist many other cultures based around ethnicity, sexual orientation, geography, religion, gender, and class (National Center for Culturally Responsive Education Systems, 2005)
    Open-ended MaterialsMaterials that encourage exploration, discovery, transformation, and imaginative play; these materials can become anything the children want them to become
    PantomimePerforming through gestures, using no words
    ImprovisationDancing, singing, telling jokes, or any type of performing without a plan, script, or written music
    CharacterizationCreating a character in detail (personality, appearance, etc.) for a play or written work




    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 his daughter is 9, she no longer plays 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. (2000). Child Development (5th ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

    Blue-Banning, M., Summers, J. A., Frankland, H. C., Nelson, L. L., & Beegle, G. (2004). Dimensions of Family and Professional Partnerships: Constructive guidelines for collaboration. Exceptional Children, 70(2), 167-184.

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

    National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2009). C. Copple & S. Bredekamp (Eds.), Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8 National Association for the Education of Young Children. Retrieved from

    Duffy, B. (2006). Supporting Creativity and Imagination in the Early Years, Open University Press.

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

    Epstein, A. S. (2007). The Intentional Teacher: Choosing the best strategies for young children’s learning. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

    Harms, T., Clifford, R. M., & Cryer, D. (2003). Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale, revised edition. New York: Teachers College Press.

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

    Kovach, B., & Da Ros-Voseles, D. (2008). Being with Babies: Understanding and responding to the infants in your care. Beltsville, MD: Gryphon House.

    Zion, S., & Kozleski, E. B. (2005). Module 1: Understanding Culture and Cultural Responsiveness. National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems. Retrieved from

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