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    • Describe environments and materials that support infants’ and toddlers’ cognitive development.
    • Identify ways learning materials encourage discovery, exploration, experimentation, and problem solving in your classroom.
    • Discuss ideas for addressing the needs and backgrounds of all infants and toddlers in your care.


    " In order to act as an educator for the child the environment has to be flexible; it must undergo frequent modification by the children and the teachers in order to remain up-to-date and responsive to their needs to be protagonists in constructing their knowledge ." - Lella Gandini, 1998.


    The Third Teacher

    In Italy after World War II a teacher by the name of Loris Malaguzzi, along with parents of the villages outside Reggio Emilia which were destroyed by the war, got together to create a new approach for teaching young children. The Reggio Emilia philosophy is based on the principles of respect, responsibility, and community. These principles are developed through exploration and discovery in a supportive and enriching environment created based on the interests of the children. In Reggio Emilia programs, the environment is known as the third teacher as a result of its importance to development and learning.

    Environments and Materials that Promote Infants' and Toddlers' Cognitive Development

    Infants and toddlers thrive and cognitive learning explodes when young children are allowed to explore an environment that is rich in developmentally appropriate materials with teachers who are respectful of their needs and know how to tailor experiences based on individual learning styles. As highlighted in previous lessons in this course, early experiences matter. Infants and toddlers are born ready to learn and this learning takes place when they cuddle with caregivers, listen to language or music, taste foods, and explore their environments in numerous ways every day. How you set up your learning environment for infants and toddlers can make a difference in their development and learning.

    Infants and toddlers are natural explorers, but there is still a lot you can do to help them learn and grow. For example, you need to know what infants and toddlers explore. You also have to meaningfully design your environments and find materials to spark exploration. Finally, you can plan experiences that promote learning. This lesson will highlight the significance of purposefully creating environments and choosing materials that facilitate infants' and toddlers' learning and growth. The final lesson in this course will discuss experiences and activities that promote cognitive development.

    Learning is both individual and social and it takes place within social and cultural contexts. Therefore you need to make sure your learning environment provides opportunities for infants and toddlers to engage in individual experiences, as well as meaningful interactions with peers and caregivers in your room throughout the day. Consider the different areas in your room. How are these set up? Are there interesting, age-appropriate and fun materials for infants and toddlers to manipulate, explore, and learn from? When thinking about interactions with peers, how are you setting up the environment for these interactions to take place? For example, do you provide enough materials, such as large blocks or balls of different textures for a group of children to manipulate them, stack or push them, and have fun while interacting with you and their peers? Or do you provide cause and effect toys and encourage infants and toddlers to explore them?

    Infants and toddlers find enjoyment in making their own discoveries and learning how things work and don't work. They love to experiment! They want to use materials in many ways and not be limited. It is important that toys and materials meet the children's needs and are not necessarily attractive to adults. Consider for example that young children often enjoy a box a particular toy comes in more than the actual toy! Have you thought about why this is? A box has flaps for opening and closing, and a child can put items in and take them out. They can push it, kick it, carry it, and add a string and pull it. Some boxes are big enough to climb in, or even stick a head in for a look. Young children can put their arms in it and maybe attempt to stand in it. Every item a child puts in that box will make a different sound when shaken. Different items make it heavier or lighter. A box encourages discovery, exploration, experimentation and problem solving. It's a great learning tool for such a "simple" item.

    When choosing materials keep the following in mind:

    • Materials must be intact, usable, and safe at all times. If batteries in electronic toys have lost their charge, replace batteries or remove the toy from play.
    • Materials can be purchased, borrowed, or donated from a variety of places. Donated or borrowed materials must be approved before use in the classroom. Materials do not have to be purchased from early care and education companies to support learning and play.
    • Materials can be homemade or make-it-and-take-it from crafts that are added to the classroom.
    • Infants and toddlers with special needs may require adaptations in the ways experiences are provided or supported and in materials they use. But a child's special need should not inhibit him or her from exploring, problem solving, and experiencing cognitive development.

    At the end of the Learn section of this lesson you will find a document that shares additional information about choosing materials that promote infants' and toddlers' cognitive development.

    Accessibility of Learning Materials

    Infants and toddlers learn by doing and materials must be within their reach for them to have appropriate experiences. Many early care and education resources refer to the importance of accessibility of materials within learning environments. Infants and toddlers follow their desire for certain materials and experiences, and if materials are not accessible for much of the day then their needs may go unmet. If this happens frequently and consistently, their learning opportunities are greatly diminished. It is important to remember that wait time before, during, and after routines and during transitions is a time when infants and toddlers should have access to materials. Keep wait time to a minimum; suggested wait time is three minutes or less.

    Accessible materials are:

    • Within reach of infants and toddlers, not stored in cabinets or on shelves that are out of reach.
    • Available for infants and toddlers to use whenever they want, without having to ask for them.
    • Visually accessible, meaning they aren't in a tub where an infant or toddler would have to dig for them.

    For materials to be accessible to non-mobile infants, you must frequently and consistently move the infant to a variety of materials and move materials to the infant. Small, shallow baskets or containers work well for this purpose.

    When you get to know each child you care for well by observing them on a daily basis, your selection of age appropriate materials and planning of child- directed and adult- guided experiences that encourage discovery, exploration, and problem solving will support their cognitive development. Your attention to what they need developmentally and what they are interested in motivates their desire to learn, which in turn inspires you to continue to adapt and change to support who they are today and shape who they will be tomorrow.

    Environments and Materials that Address the Needs of All Learners

    There are many things you can do in your learning environment to help all infants and toddlers meet important learning goals. The first and most important step is to gather information about the children in your care. You will need to know what infants and toddlers are able to do well and what seems to be hard. Gathering information will help you know the skills and strategies that are likely to help each child in your care.

    Universal Design for Learning (UDL; CAST, 2011) is one strategy you can use. UDL helps all people learn and be successful in their environments. There are examples of universal design all around us: audio books, curb cutouts for strollers and wheelchairs, keyless entry on cars, electric can openers. Many of these tools were developed for people with disabilities, but they make life easier for all of us. Using the concept of UDL, some examples of what caregivers can do in their classrooms to support infants and toddlers with special learning needs are: using a simple picture schedule, adapting seating arrangements, or using adaptive toys and eating utensils. For additional examples demonstrating the use of UDL, please refer to Lesson 5 in this course, Supporting Cognitive Development: Experiences and Activities.

    Reflecting on Your Own Practices

    It's important to recognize the messages you send in your classroom. Sometimes biases sneak into our environments, materials, or interactions. Awareness of your own bias is the first step in supporting development. Think about which of the following biases might be in your own classroom:

    • Biased language. Language can send stereotypical gender messages. Adults might call infants and toddlers "baby girl," "big boy," or "cutie" rather than their given names. Staff might encourage girls to "be careful" while saying "boys will be boys." To fight this bias, staff could encourage peaceful solutions for all children (avoid directions like not hitting girls or not hitting kids with glasses). Be sure to comment equally on girls' and boys' appearances and accomplishments.
    • Stereotypical play opportunities. Infants and toddlers are often encouraged to play in certain ways (e.g., girls with dolls and boys with trucks). Make sure boys and girls get equal access and encouragement for playing balls, blocks, music, art, active play, and messy play.
    • Biased materials. Sometimes posters and materials for the classroom present stereotypical images (e.g., Native Americans in "war paint," an all-male construction crew). Make sure the images in your classroom show men and women equally in a variety of professions. Make sure drawings or photos of people with disabilities are respectful images. Include books that show different ethnic backgrounds, social classes, and family structures.

    There are many ways you can enhance the curriculum to improve children's understanding and acceptance of culture. The following are some examples (Derman-Sparks & Edwards, 2010):

    • Classroom props or materials: Include props from a variety of cultures. Books, furniture, dolls, dress up clothes, or musical instruments can all reflect experiences from around the world. Art materials should include a range of materials for representing skin tones and various artistic styles, fabrics of various patterns, and books about art around the world.
    • Bulletin boards and displays: This space can be used to reflect and respect family traditions. Ask families to bring in pictures or other items for the board.
    • Class books or biographies: Books about the infants and toddlers in the class document the real experiences of children and families. Talk to infants and toddlers about their lives and their families and incorporate those in drawings, stories, or songs throughout your day.
    • Family stories: Provide families with materials and instructions for creating a Family Book. Families and children can work together to talk about and record their family history and daily life. This can be a great way to introduce children and families to one another.
    • Storytelling: Encourage grandparents or community elders to share stories of their early childhoods with the class or group. These can be audio-recorded or transcribed to create keepsake books for the class.
    • Messages from home: Using a tape-recorder, encourage family members to record a brief message in their home language. This can be played for an infant or toddler when he or she is upset or homesick.
    • Music: Include music tapes or CDs and songs from different cultures during music time or story time.
    • Collaborative work: When appropriate, encourage children to work together in groups. This may minimize the pressure on a child who is learning English. It also exposes children to a variety of ideas and encourages creativity.
    • Snacks and meals: Invite families to share a traditional meal or snack with the children.


    The following videos demonstrate how important environments and materials are when it comes to supporting cognitive development.

    Infant Block Play

    Watch how using blocks supports learning.

    The Band

    Watch how accessible music materials support learning


    Choosing Materials for Cognitive Development

    • Ensure materials are safe. Choking and falling are primary concerns for infants and toddlers and toys and materials need to be safe. When evaluating your materials, watch out for sharp edges or projections, as well as chipping paint. Select items that are non-toxic.
    • Select materials that are easy for infants and toddlers to handle on their own. Young children learn by manipulating items by themselves; however, be ready to assist them if needed.
    • Select materials that support cognitive development for each age group served.  Use developmental milestone information to make choices that support cognitive development.
    • Choose items that are used in homes (e.g. kitchen spatulas, serrated spoons, strainers, wooden spoons, plastic bowls, shoe boxes, dish towels). This links home and child care experiences in the eyes of the child and shows families that learning materials are often at their fingertips and inexpensive. A lot of these materials are also open-ended, and therefore appropriate for children at different ages and developmental stages.
    • Examine each item and evaluate how it promotes child development. Does it support cause/effect actions? Does it utilize fine motor skills? Does it teach infants and toddlers about spatial relationships? Does it help them practice problem solving skills?
    • Include materials that support each child’s interest and skill level. For example, if you have a few pre-toddlers who love soft toys that squeak, make sure you have several bins of soft toys that squeak available for them to play with.
    • Provide exact duplicates and triplicates (same color, size, function) of the same item. This allows more than one infant or toddler to play and learn at the same time and also supports social-emotional growth and development.
    • Choose materials that honor diversity. Materials should be representative of children and families who attend the program and the community and promote positive portrayal of all persons. A variety of materials should include people of differing genders, roles and occupations (female firefighter, male caring for a young child), ages, ethnicities, and ability level (person wearing glasses, person using an assistive device like a walker or a wheelchair).
    • Offer materials that include a variety of textures, skills, colors, sizes, shapes, and functions. Items can be made of wood, metal, plastic, cloth, vinyl; be smooth, bumpy, rough, soft, and hard. Neutral and natural colored items are pleasing to infants and toddlers; bright colors don’t make an item “better”.



    Using the information that you have learned in other lessons in this course, download, print and complete the Learning Materials Activity. Write your responses and share them with a supervisor, trainer, or coach.



    Providing learning materials that support the interests and developmental needs of infants and toddlers is an essential part of your job. Reflecting on why infants and toddlers do or do not choose certain learning materials can help you adapt your classroom environment to support their individual needs. Download, print and complete the Learning Materials Reflective Exercise. Write your responses and share them with a supervisor, trainer, or coach.


    Cause and effectMaking things happen and understanding the causes of some events. For example, shaking a rattle to make the sound continue, dropping objects from different heights and positions, pulling a string attached to a toy to bring it closer
    Developmentally appropriate materialsMaterials that match the way children develop and learn
    Problem solvingUnderstanding how to use one’s self or objects to attain a goal. For example, twisting a shape until it fits into a hole in a container, moving around to the side of the aquarium to see the fish better, using a spoon or fork, using a cup to roll out clay




    True or False? The way you set up the learning environment for infants and toddlers impacts their cognitive development.


    Wait time before, during, and after routines and during transitions should be kept to a minimum. Which of the following is the suggested wait time for infants and toddlers?


    Accessible materials are defined as:

    References & Resources

    The Creative Curriculum for Infants, Toddlers & Twos, 2nd edition; Dodge, Rudick, Berke. Teaching Strategies Washington DC 2006

    Prime Times, Second Edition. Greenman, Stonehouse, Schweikert. Redleaf Press, St. Paul 2008

    Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale-Revised Edition, Teacher's College Press, New York, 2006

    Ohio's Infant & Toddler Guidelines; OCCRRA Columbus, 2006

    Zero to Three (2014). Tips for Choosing Toys for Toddlers. Retrieved from