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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 infants and toddlers, which supports their exploration, experimentation, and curiosity. This lesson will highlight materials that promote creativity for infants and toddlers and it will share information about choosing materials that support the strengths, needs, and cultures of the infants and toddlers in your care.

  • Recognize how a supportive environment for infants and toddlers looks and feels.
  • Identify developmentally appropriate materials that promote creativity for infants and toddlers.
  • Define culturally responsive creative materials.



Think about the infants and toddlers in your care. How do they interact with materials or the environment? Have you observed an infant who puts everything in their mouth? What about a toddler who empties a basket of its contents, only to refill and repeat? Infants and toddlers are curious and enjoy the exploration of materials within their environments. We know that the process of exploration and experimentation for infants and toddlers 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 with using crayons and grow to be toddlers, they will be better able to 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. This experience offers an opportunity for infants and toddlers 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 infants and toddlers 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 infants and toddlers 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 infants’ and toddlers’ 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 infants and toddlers 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 Infant and Toddler Learning Environments course.
  • Use materials that are appropriate for the developmental ages and stages of the infants and toddlers in your care.
  • Identify areas of the environment with surfaces that are easy to clean for exploring messy materials such as paint.
  • Include materials that provide infants and toddlers 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.

Materials that Foster Creativity

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

The selection of materials, as well as their intentional display within the environment, will be different for young infants, mobile infants, and toddlers. Young infants will 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 are looking to demonstrate their independence, and caregivers can plan for and support their use of creative materials in specific activities and experiences. It is important to keep in mind that infants and toddlers will carry creative materials all over the room, as this is part of their natural development. Labeling shelves with pictures of the items can help as you strive to get materials back to where they belong.

The table below lists different types of materials that can be used to foster creativity for infants and toddlers. You can also learn more about creating engaging care and learning environments by reviewing the Infant and Toddler Learning Environments course. Additionally, you should discuss the display and use of developmentally appropriate creative materials with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Creative Materials

Easel, paint brushes, paints, including finger paint


Colored masking tape

Playdough or clay, and tools (cookie cutters, rollers)

Paper (e.g., magazines, newsprint, plain paper, construction paper, card stock, notebooks, clipboard, etc.)

Glue sticks and bottles

Writing tools such as pens, colored pencils, crayons, markers, and chalk

Scraps of fabric and ribbon in a variety of colors, shapes, patterns, and textures

Big trucks and cars

Large plastic blocks

Play people and animals

Hollow or light transparent blocks

Large interlocking blocks

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/families in your care

Blankets using different textured materials and contrasting colors and patterns

Real-life materials that represent their experiences and culture (bottles, oatmeal containers, cereal boxes)


Dolls of various abilities and with different skin tones and hair texture

Pretend phones

Pots, pans, spatulas, spoons, plates, bowls

Purses, briefcases, tool bag and other dress-up clothing

Small table and chairs

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

Pop-up toys and jack-in-the-boxes

Grasping toys (rattles, squeeze toys)

Stacking toys

Interlocking toys (blocks, rings, pop beads)

Cars, trucks, road signs and community figurines

Plastic toy animals

Different types of musical instruments such as chimes, drums, maracas, bongos

Rattles and homemade sound makers (e.g., plastic bottles filled with beans, buttons, or beads, and secured with glue or tape)

Different types of recorded music

Metal bowls and wooden spoons

Colorful scarves

Various containers (buckets, baskets, clay pots)

Recycled materials (plastic tubing. wood scraps)

Found items (rocks, sticks, leaves, sand)

Various surfaces for sitting, crawling, walking, or climbing


You can combine these creative materials as a way to invite infants and toddlers 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:

Infants Toddlers
  • A large cardboard box to climb in and out of and color on
  • A blanket on the floor made with different types of materials
  • A mobile or other materials hung above a quilt or blanket on the floor so infants can reach to touch and move them
  • A plastic container or wading pool with warm water and a mix of materials that sink or float
  • Balls of assorted sizes and textures
  • Pinecones, cattails and tall grasses
  • 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

Remember that infants and toddlers 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 are playing with water. Please see the Infant and Toddler 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).

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 materials and space should be designed in a way that promotes continuity between the children’s home environment and the child care center environment. This will help each child and family to feel welcomed and valued.

Getting to know the infants and toddlers in your care is one of your first responsibilities as a caregiver. Observation and communication with families can help you learn more about what infants and toddlers like to do, their strengths and needs, and how they behave during interactions and play experiences. By knowing and understanding the individual preferences of infants and toddlers, you can be more responsive. Having specific cultural information from families further provides an opportunity to sensitively meet individual needs so that infants and toddlers can see their environment as predictable and safe.

Using Materials that Support the Creative Strengths and Needs of All Infants and Toddlers

“Babies are at the beginning of forming their identities. What they learn about themselves depends in part on what they see (and do not see) in their environment, as well as in the spoken and unspoken messages they receive from their caregivers.” (Derman-Sparks et al., 2010)

Partnering with families can provide you with guidance and support needed to plan for responsive creative experiences, activities, and materials that support diversity and inclusion. Actively taking time daily to observe, interact, listen, and reflect can also help you when making considerations for the infants and toddlers in your care. You can ask yourself such questions as:

  • 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 infant or toddler from our interactions and daily routines?
  • What have I learned from observing this infant or toddler while they explore and experiment?
  • What does this infant or toddler already know? What might they be curious about or interested in exploring and experimenting with?

As an infant and toddler caregiver, you can actively encourage curiosity, exploration, and experimentation that reflect different cultures and the individual strengths and needs of all the infants and toddlers in your setting. Developmentally appropriate practices focus on the learning characteristics of infants and toddlers and individualize experiences for the unique interests, abilities, and temperament of the young child. Think about what you already do to support the creativity of all infants and toddlers in your early care and learning setting. What materials do you already offer to ensure a wide variety of races, cultures, ages, and abilities are represented? How do you welcome families’ culture into the space? Below are additional ideas that you can incorporate:

  • Provide play food, pretend people, and dress-up items from diverse cultures.
  • Include mirrors to allow children to reflect on their own physical features.
  • Represent a range of skin tones in paper, paint markers, crayons, and playdough.
  • 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 infants and toddlers as they make choices about creative materials with which to explore and experiment.
  • Incorporate the use of home languages with infants, toddlers, and their families, including American Sign Language.
  • Change the height or position of an easel to support a toddler who is unable to reach or stand for extended periods of time.
  • Read stories in different languages and invite families to read a favorite book from home or in their home language.
  • Tape paper to the table and use tape or clips to hold paper to the easel.
  • Use small baskets, backpacks, or fanny packs on walkers or push toys to help older infants and toddlers get creative materials from one activity or area to another.
  • Use a soft, favorite comfort item, such as a small stuffed animal, to play peekaboo with an infant.
  • Provide books and photos showing families from diverse backgrounds and with differing abilities.
  • Display photos of infants' and toddlers' families at the child's eye 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 infants and toddlers 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 infants and toddlers to be creative.
  • It facilitates learning.

There are many ways you can display infants’ and toddlers’ 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 infants and toddlers have a chance to be featured.
  • Use shelves or tables to display three-dimensional items, such as sculptures or pottery.
  • Make photocopies of artwork and turn them into greeting cards to write notes to families or add to a writing area.

When displaying work, help children 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.


Using Materials to Support Infant and Toddler Creativity

Access to appropriate materials support development and learning.


As an infant and toddler caregiver, 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 family backgrounds.
  • Provide safe spaces and opportunities for children to explore.
  • Design environments so that infants and toddlers 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 utensils to experiment with feeding themselves.
  • Observe and honor infants' and toddlers' time exploring.


What materials do you currently provide for infants and toddlers to promote creative expression? Reflect on experiences and activities you provide that spark infants’ and toddlers’ creativity, focusing on the materials that you used. Download the Reflecting on Materials 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 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.


Think about ways to share what you learned in this lesson with families and ways to engage them in their child’s creative exploration. Download the handout, Engaging Families. Try one of the activities listed or come up with your own. Then, share and discuss your idea with a trainer, coach, or administrator.


Loose Parts:
Natural or synthetic found, bought, or upcycled materials that children can move, manipulate, control, and change within their play (Beloglovsky & Daly, 2016)


Finish this statement: The selection of creative materials for young infants, mobile infants, and toddlers …
True or false? You may need to make adaptations to creative materials for children with special needs.
A parent asks you for ideas to try at home to encourage dramatic play in their toddler son. How do you respond?
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. (2016). Loose parts 2: Inspiring play with infants and toddlers (Loose Parts Series) (Illustrated ed.). Redleaf Press.

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

Derman-Sparks, L., Edwards, J.O., & Gonzalez-Mena, J. (2010). Voices from the Field. In Anti-bias education for young children and ourselves. (pp.150-151). Essay, National Association for the Education of Young Children.

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

Epstein, Ann 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). 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.

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.

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