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    • Recognize examples of developmentally appropriate materials that promote creativity for infants and toddlers.
    • Define culturally responsive creative materials.
    • Identify materials that support creative strengths and needs for all infants and toddlers.




    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 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. 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 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 Environment course.
    • Use materials that are appropriate for the developmental ages or stages of the infants and toddlers in your care.
    • Identify areas of the environment with surfaces that are easy to clean to use materials such as paint.
    • Include materials that provide infants and toddlers 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.

    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 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 that will only help enhance their development and learning. There will also be times when you plan specific activities that will be supportive to their curiosity, discovery, development and learning.

    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’s 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 Toddler Learning Environments course. It will also be important to discuss the display and use of developmentally appropriate creative materials with your trainer, coach or supervisor.


    Creative Materials

    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

    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

    Large cardboard blocks, wooden blocks

    Cars, trucks, road signs and community figurines

    Plastic toy animals

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



    Pretend phones

    Pots, pans, spatulas, spoons, plates, bowls

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

    Small table and chairs

    Easel, paint brushes, paints, including finger paint


    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

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


    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


    You can combine these creative materials, too, 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:

    • 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 various sizes and textures
    • Pine cones, 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 Toddler Safety 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 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 acknowledgement 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 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 strengths, needs and preferences of infants and toddlers, you are able to 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

    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 also 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? From observation and interactions while exploring and experimenting?
    • What does this infant or toddler already know? What might he or she 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 families’ cultures, 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 individualizes experiences for the unique interests, strengths 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 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 infants and toddlers as they make choices about creative materials to explore and experiment with.
    • 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 long periods of time.
    • Read stories in different languages.
    • 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 even 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.
    • 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 challenges children to do their best.

    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 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.


    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.
    • 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 engage in experiences that promote creative expression? Reflect on experiences and activities you provide that spark infants’ and toddlers’ creativity, and focus on the materials that you used. Download and print 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 supervisor.



    Think about ways to share what you learned in this lesson with families. Download and print 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 supervisor.


    Cultural responsivenessThe recognition and acknowledgement that society is pluralistic. 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)




    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 she can try at home to encourage dramatic play in her toddler son. How do you respond?

    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

    Epstein, Ann 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 ed. 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.

    National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems. (2005). Module 1: Understanding Culture and Cultural Responsiveness. Retrieved from

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