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There are many different types of materials available for mixed-age groups of children. This lesson will help you think about which materials to provide for the children in your family child care home. You will learn about how to choose materials based on cultural relevance and anti-bias, children’s individual interests, the materials’ open-ended possibilities, and children’s developmental needs.

  • Define and describe “developmentally appropriate” materials.
  • Identify key considerations for choosing materials.
  • Describe the importance of selecting toys and materials that represent the cultures, interests, and developmental needs of the children in your care.



Play and Developmentally Appropriate Materials

Children learn through play. Your program setting should be designed to optimize play with a variety of colorful, safe, and interesting materials, with enough items for the number of children you care for. Children’s understanding of the world is guided by warm, responsive adults. Your awareness of each child’s developmental level and individual interests and goals will promote optimal growth and development. The variety of materials you choose for your family child care setting is guided by the children you serve and their individual development.

Developmentally appropriate materials are materials that fit the ability and stage of development children are in, but still allow for differences between children in skills, interests, and characteristics. The materials you have available in your home should match the developmental learning needs of the children you care for. Your own knowledge about the stages of child development will help you think about what to offer that is appropriate to the development and growth of each child. When a variety of open-ended toys and materials are provided, the items can serve multiple purposes for the mixed ages of the children in your care. 

You may be caring for a toddler who is learning to sort objects (e.g., place all the plastic toy animals in one basket and all the pictures of animals in another basket), while at the same time you may care for a preschool-age child learning to sort the cards by types of animals (e.g., place all the pictures of farm animals in one basket and all the pictures of zoo animals in the other basket). A school-age child may be sorting pictures of different types of birds based on their natural habitat (e.g., place pictures of the birds in the part of the country they live in). These children are learning about the characteristics of animals using the same material, but they can approach the sorting task with different levels of complexity. Each child uses the animal picture cards but sorts them based on their developmental level, from a simple to more complex understanding.

Key Considerations in Selecting Materials

Children should have extensive time each day to freely explore materials (at least one hour per day). This time should be scheduled so that children can have large blocks of time to engage in open-ended play. Children of all ages (including school-age children) learn from books, art materials, music, dramatic play, sand and water, blocks, toys and games, cooking, technology, and the outdoors. The materials you choose can engage children in group or individual play and promote problem-solving skills.

The majority of materials should be open-ended so that children can draw upon their creativity and imaginations. Children should feel free to use the materials in a variety of ways. Materials can reinforce their developmental skills, entice them to reach new levels, and help them explore new interests.

Materials can be a combination of toys and “real objects” that are sized appropriately for children’s use. Examples may include:

  • Using kitchen tools as musical instruments
  • Incorporating pans, funnels, measuring cups, and buckets into the sandbox
  • Requesting donations of recycled food containers to extend learning in the dramatic play area

You can also incorporate art materials in your environment. These might be materials that you plan to offer with certain interest ideas, or ones that you plan to use with small group or individual activities. These items can include crayons, markers, paints, dot markers, paintbrushes, sponges, etc. It is important to provide children with early creative experiences so that they have opportunities to get acquainted with the materials and to learn about themselves. Each individual will have a different interpretation of the materials you provide. Make sure that you plan for time, space, and clean up when offering these ideas. All materials should be safe and non-toxic.

By observing and having conversations with the children in your care, you will learn about their interests. To stay organized, keep an inventory of all your materials (you may want to keep this on your computer or spreadsheet where you can easily add new materials or delete items). 

The authors of the Family Child Care Environment Rating Scale provide guidelines about the types and quantities of materials that should be available to children in a family child care setting. This lesson’s Learn Section handout, Suggested Materials for Development and Learning, describes the types and quantities of materials that family child care settings need—and why they are important for children’s development and growth.

When choosing and presenting learning materials, keep in mind these key ideas:

  • Materials should match the different age levels and skill levels of the children.
  • Materials should be rotated monthly or as the interests of the children change.
  • Materials should be accessible (i.e., children don’t have to ask you to get or open materials).

Screen Use and Media

Decisions about when, where, and what amount of time you will allow children to use smart phones, TV, computers, or electronic tablets should be made with and explained to parents. You will want to minimize the amount of time that young children use screens. As a role model, you will also have to limit your use of these devices when caring for children in your home. It is easy to become distracted and spend long periods of time engaged with electronics and social media. Additionally, we know that creating healthy media experiences for children is about more than just screen time. Caregivers should make informed decisions about the media experiences they offer in their child care program. NAEYC and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media suggest the following principles to guide the use of technology with young children (NAEYC, 2012):

  • Technology tools and interactive media should not harm children.
  • Developmentally appropriate practices must guide decisions about media use.
  • Professional judgement should be used to determine if and when media use is age appropriate, individually appropriate, and culturally and linguistically appropriate.
  • Appropriate use of media depends on the age, developmental level, needs, interests, linguistic background, and abilities of each child.
  • Use of media is active, hands-on, engaging, and empowering.
  • Interactions with media should be playful and support creativity, active play, pretend play, and outdoor activities.

For more information on screen and media use with children and youth, refer to the References & Resources section of this lesson.

Safe Materials

Children’s safety is always your primary concern. You should make sure the materials you provide are safe. All materials should be checked for choking hazards (such as small parts) and toxicity (particularly plants, sensory materials, and art supplies). Make sure you supervise materials that could be difficult developmentally for young children.

Locating Materials

Some family child care providers find it helpful to belong to a local child care group or network where providers can swap materials for a period of time. You may want to talk with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator to see if there are any family child care provider groups that meet in your area. In many areas, the local library allows families and providers to check out toys, books, games, discovery kits, puppets, and other materials. There are websites and books that depict how to create materials using recycled items, scrap materials, or loose parts.


Representing Diversity

Talking with children’s families may give you more information about choosing culturally relevant and anti-biased books, toys, materials, and music that include a child’s home language and cultural practices. But what exactly does this mean? Cultural relevance means that your choice of materials reflects the backgrounds, community, knowledge, and experiences of the diverse children in your care. An anti-biased approach means that you support and embrace the differences within each individual that may be present. Each child and family is unique, so it is important not to assume that all families from a particular cultural heritage engage in the same cultural practices or speak the same languages in their homes. During warm, respectful conversations with parents, you may inquire about how they would like to see their child’s cultural practices, celebrations, and home language supported in your family child care setting.

Dolls, photos, posters, and books that depict the culture, language, and abilities of the children in your care should be selected. If you only serve children from the same racial and cultural background, it is still important to reflect diverse individuals and cultures in the books, photos, toys, and materials that you provide and discuss the relevance of these materials with the children. Help children connect with the materials in meaningful and thoughtful ways. Watch the following video as a family child care provider describes how they choose materials that reflect diverse cultures and abilities.

Materials That Reflect Diversity

Watch how toys and materials can reflect diverse cultures and abilities.


In this lesson, you learned the importance of providing a variety of developmentally, individually, and culturally appropriate materials that enhance children’s learning and development. You learned that open-ended materials that allow a variety of uses across age levels are ideal in family child care settings where providers care for children of mixed ages together. Creating a plan for organization is an important part of gathering, presenting, and storing materials for your family child care home.

Ask yourself the following questions about the materials in your family child care home:

  • Do these materials reflect equity and respect the racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and family diversity of the program and of the broader community?
  • Do these materials reflect the individual’s current interests and help spark new interests?
  • Do these materials allow each individual to play in a variety of ways?
  • Do these materials help us reach important learning goals?


There are many resources online and in your local area that can give you ideas for fun, low-cost creative materials. Some providers find it helpful to create activity cards that list materials needed for children to use in particular activities. The Resources for Family Child Care Materials and Activities attachment includes a number of websites with engaging materials and activities for mixed-age providers.


As you gather materials, it is important to create an organization system. Creating a materials inventory and saving it on your computer will assist you in staying organized. This inventory can help you plan for future needs as well. Complete the Materials Inventory and review with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.


Culturally Relevant Materials:
Items that reflect the backgrounds, knowledge, and experiences of all the children in your care
Developmentally Appropriate Materials:
Items that fit the stage of development children are in, allowing for differences among children in skills, interests, and characteristics


True or false? A single learning object can meet a wide range of developmental levels.
When choosing and presenting learning materials for your family child care home, you should try to select materials that:
A parent wants to know if your family child care home has any Spanish-language materials available to make their child feel at home. What do you say?
References & Resources

Brown, A., Shifrin, D. L., & Hill, D. L. (2015). Beyond ‘turn it off’: How to advise families on media use. AAP News, 36, 10.

Armstrong, L. J. (2012). Family child care homes: Creative spaces for children to learn. Redleaf Press.

DeRosa, D.L. (2016, March 29). Tips to share with families: Practical advice for raising kids in the digital age. National After School Association.

Harms, T., Cryer, D., and Clifford, R. (2019). Family child care environment rating scale (3rd ed.). Teacher’s College Press.  

Good toys for young children by age & stage. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Pelo, A. (2008). Rethinking early childhood education. Rethinking Schools.

Schaefer, R. (2016). Teacher inquiry on the influence of materials on children’s learning (Voices). Young Children. 71(5).

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at St. Vincent’s College. Technology and interactive media as tools in early childhood programs serving young children birth to age eight years old. NAEYC.

National Library of Medicine. (2021, May 24). Screen time and children. MedlinePlus. 

Thompson, E. (2013). Something from nothing: Using everyday materials with preschoolers. High Scope Press.

Zero to Three. (2018, October 25). Screen sense: What the research says about the impact of media on children aged 0-3 years old. Zero to Three.