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    • Define and describe “developmentally appropriate” materials.
    • Identify key considerations when selecting materials, as well as the benefits to infants, toddlers and caregivers.
    • Choose toys and materials that represent the cultures, interests and learning goals of your space.




    Curiosity drives infants and toddlers to investigate and explore their environment. Through exploration, infants and toddlers play with and manipulate a variety of materials while repeating enjoyable actions and gaining a sense of pleasure while learning.

    Most infants learn to explore objects with all of their senses: seeing, touching, hearing, tasting and smelling. Through safe exploration, they also begin to develop ways of learning and gathering information about objects. Researchers have found that 12-month-old infants can remember and copy some actions they see up to four weeks later, even without practicing the actions in the meantime (Klein & Meltzoff 1999).

    Understanding infant and toddler development, as well as the role of play, can help caregivers select materials to meet young children’s unique needs and interests and support their development and learning.

    Selecting Materials

    Caregivers have many choices when selecting materials for an infant or toddler environment. The materials help set the stage for learning. Infants and toddlers may feel a sense of security when they are able to see and play with materials also found in their home.

    While infants and toddlers explore materials that are interesting to them, it is the caregiver that helps make the experience meaningful. Caregivers should select materials that are:

    • Culturally relevant: Do these materials reflect and respect the racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and family diversity of the program and of the broader community?
    • Developmentally appropriate: Do these materials allow infants and toddlers to play in a variety of ways? Do these materials help us reach important learning goals for infants and toddlers?
    • Linked to children’s interests: Do these materials reflect the infant and toddlers’ current interests and help spark new interests?

    Culturally Relevant

    Infant and toddler play and learning materials should be culturally relevant. But what does that mean? Cultural relevance means your choice of materials should reflect the backgrounds, knowledge and experiences of the diverse children in your room. By choosing materials that validate and empower children of all racial, ethnic and social backgrounds, you will build a bridge between children’s home and school lives that will provide a strong foundation for learning.

    There many simple ways to expose children to positive images of people from a variety of backgrounds:

    • Display pictures that represent all children, families and staff in your program.
    • Display pictures of men and women in a variety of jobs (police officer, construction worker, teacher, chef).
    • Include items that represent cultures from around the world (scarves, cooking utensils, musical instruments)
    • Stock your learning space with books that give positive messages about age, gender, race, culture, special needs, different families and linguistic diversity (e.g., alphabet and counting books from various cultures).
    • Ask family members to lend you items from their homes.
    • Dolls should represent a range of ages, races and abilities.
    • Play traditional and contemporary music from around the globe.

    Above all, remember to engage families in making your learning space a culturally appropriate space. Display framed pictures of families. Create family books with the children. Encourage family members to share their home language and help you label items in the room with words from that language.

    Developmentally Appropriate

    Toys and materials in your learning space should be developmentally appropriate. This means they should match the stage of development of the children in your care. Because children develop at different rates, choosing developmentally appropriate materials means you should have a range of toys available that can accommodate differences between individual children’s skills, interests and characteristics. A room stocked with developmentally appropriate materials “fits” the child—the child should not have to adjust to “fit” the learning space!

    In infancy and toddlerhood, children develop and change dramatically. Caregivers should consider what toys and materials match their current development and how materials can support ongoing development and learning. For example, looking at and reading books with infants and toddlers can support the following types of development:

    • Emotional: Book reading and quiet book areas give infants and toddlers an opportunity to relax and recharge.
    • Social: Looking at books with a caregiver or friend can help strengthen a relationship.
    • Motor: Turning the pages of a book uses and enhances fine-motor skills.
    • Language: Caregivers can read with and help infants and toddlers explore books, pictures and new words.
    • Cognitive: Infants and toddlers are introduced to new words, text and pictures.

    Developmentally appropriate toys facilitate learning through play. When such toys are offered in a safe environment, infants and toddlers can move around and interact with them and with each other. If toys are too difficult or advanced, infants and toddlers may become frustrated. In addition, if toys are too simple, they may become bored and seek to entertain themselves in unsafe ways (e.g., running throughout the room or climbing on furniture). Through interactions, caregivers can help infants and toddlers explore developmentally appropriate materials and see themselves as competent learners.

    Part of developmentally appropriate materials includes having multiples of favorite items whenever possible. Having duplicates of coveted items (e.g., dolls, trucks or musical items) will decrease infant and toddler frustration and encourage positive interactions between children. It is important to remember there are many other natural opportunities for infants and toddlers to begin learning about “turn-taking” with caregiver guidance; for example, as toddlers negotiate who will go down the slide next, or as older infants learn to each share their song ideas during group time.

    Examples of developmentally appropriate materials for older infants (about 7–12 months) include:

    • Soft blocks for building
    • Baby dolls
    • Large balls
    • Nesting toys (e.g., plastic cups)
    • Plastic and wood vehicles with wheels

    Examples of developmentally appropriate materials for toddlers (about 24 months) include:

    • Wooden puzzles with 4–12 pieces
    • Dress-up clothes, puppets
    • Chalkboard with large pieces of chalk
    • Blocks, transportation toys
    • More detailed picture books

    Refer to the Meeting Infants’ and Toddlers’ Needs: Developmentally Appropriate Materials (Apply section) attachment for excellent guidelines for selecting toys and materials for infants and young children.

    As you learned in the Safety course, you should make sure the materials you provide are safe. All materials in your learning space should be made for infants and/or toddlers. Ensure your room is free of toxic materials (e.g., certain plants or art supplies). Make sure you carefully supervise materials that could be difficult for developmentally younger children.

    Linked to Children’s Interests

    Caregivers can build on infants’ and toddlers’ play by providing engaging toys during interactions and experiences. Effective materials are safe and complement the infants’ or toddlers’ abilities, strengths and interests. For example, for a toddler who expresses interest in animals, the caregiver can add plastic animal toys to the sensory or block area where he enjoys playing.

    Materials that can be used in a variety of ways and that meet infants’ and toddlers’ developmental needs can provide a sense of security. Opportunities created for infants and toddlers to easily access, have fun with and manipulate materials that meet their interests and learning styles help infants and toddlers:

    caregiver and toddlers play with engaging toys
    • Feel competent and recognize they have the ability to do different things and express ideas
    • Develop self-help skills
    • Interact with their caregivers and peers
    • Feel calm and supported

    Remember some families may not value play the way other families do. Some families may not have an environment that allows for safe play or a tradition of special time or floor play with their infant or toddler. Learn about families, seek to understand differences and find what is most important in the care of their infants and toddlers.

    Open-Ended Materials

    Not all toys are created equal. Some toys spark imagination and some hinder it. You might have noticed that young children are often more interested in the box than the toy that came inside it. Why? Because the box can become anything. It becomes a drum when you hit it, a house when you put a doll inside it, a hat when you put it on your head and a mask when you play hide and seek behind it. The possibilities are endless. Infants and toddlers learn and explore more when a toy is only limited by their imaginations. Consider the following list and think about why toys spark or limit imaginative play.

    Toys that may limit imaginative play:

    • Action figures or plastic dolls with preset accessories or movements
    • Toys that talk, sing or dance
    • Toys that are branded, such as with a TV show or popular character

    Toys and materials that spark imaginative play:

    • Dress-up clothes
    • Large boxes
    • Baby dolls
    • Musical instruments
    • Writing and art materials
    • Items that are “open-ended” or can be used in a variety of different ways (e.g., blocks, scarves)

    Linked to Developmental Goals

    It is perhaps most important to think about why you have selected the materials in your room. Ask yourself: how will this toy help infants and toddlers meet their individual learning and development goals? What will they learn from the toy? Use your knowledge of learning and development standards for infants and toddlers and your curriculum guidelines to shape your classroom decisions. Select materials that will help individual children in your classroom work on their current developmental or learning goals.

    Look for materials that promote infant and toddler development in a variety of ways. For example, perhaps you have colorful mobiles hung low for younger infants to grasp, kick and move to assist with their fine- and gross-motor development. These mobiles could be constructed out of different colored and textured fabrics so as infants and caregivers interact with them, caregivers can make comments about the different characteristics (“I see you just grabbed the red string,” or “Oooh, that one feels soft doesn’t it?”) These comments help children’s cognitive understanding of the world around them and build their early vocabularies.


    Watch this video for more ideas about the selection and use of materials to support learning and development in infant and toddler care.

    Making the Most of Materials in an Infant Learning Environment

    Advice on materials selection and use of materials to support infants and toddlers


    When it comes to selecting materials for infants and toddlers, be sure to:

    • Talk to a trainer, coach or supervisor about materials that are most appropriate for your learning space.
    • Offer materials that challenge infants and toddlers but are not so complex they cause frustration.
    • Change materials in response to infants’ and toddlers’ growth and development.
    • Include duplicates of favorite items.
    • Make adaptations so that all infants and toddlers can be included in experiences and can use materials in the learning environment.
    • Ask families to contribute materials from their own homes.
    • Reflect on the materials in your learning space. If you notice any biased materials, make a change.



    The materials you already have in your learning environment are powerful tools for learning. As you watch these videos of everyday experiences in infant and toddler classrooms, think about what the children are learning. Download and print the Materials Activity. Watch the video and complete the chart while considering how different materials affect infants’ and toddlers’ play, learning and development. Share your responses with a trainer, coach or supervisor. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses.

    Activity: Materials that Support Learning

    How do these materials support learning?



    Download and print the Developmentally Appropriate Materials handout. This resource identifies developmentally appropriate materials for infants and toddlers. Use it to consider ways you can promote feelings of security, exploration and learning in your learning space. Compare the materials from the videos earlier in this lesson and your classroom materials to the lists here. Talk to a trainer, coach or supervisor about how the materials in your room promote feelings of security, exploration and learning. For further suggestions regarding developmentally appropriate toys for infants and toddlers, see the References & Resource list.


    Culturally relevant materialsClassroom materials that reflect the backgrounds, knowledge and experiences of the diverse children in the classroom
    Developmentally appropriate materialsMaterials that fit the stage of development children are in, but still allow for differences between children in skills, interests and characteristics
    Fine-motor skillsThe ability to use fingers and hands well
    Gross-motor skillsSkills those that involve large muscle movements of the body, and include running, jumping, throwing and maintaining balance




    When choosing materials for infants and toddlers, it is important to:


    All of the following toys are developmentally appropriate for older infants (7–12 months), except:


    Which of the following is a good way to make learning space materials culturally relevant?

    References & Resources

    Cryer, D., Harms, T., & Riley, C. (2004). All About the ITERS-R: A Detailed Guide in Words and Pictures to be Used with the ITERS-R. Lewisville, NC: Kaplan Early Learning Co.

    Dodge, D., Rudick, S., Berke, K. (2006). The Creative Curriculum for Infants, Toddlers and Twos, (2nd ed.). Washington DC: Teaching Strategies, Inc.

    Elkind, D. (2007). The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally. Reading, MA: Da Capo Press.

    Greenman, J., Stonehouse, A., Schweikert, G. (2007). Prime Times: A Handbook for Excellence in Infant and Toddler Programs, (2nd ed.). St. Paul: Redleaf Press.

    Good Toys for Young Children. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

    Harms, T., Cryer, D., & Clifford, R. M. (2006). Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale, revised edition. New York: Teachers College Press.

    Lally, J. R. (Ed.). (1990). A Guide to Setting Up Environments: Infant/Toddler Caregiving, (2nd ed.). Sacramento: California Dept. of Education and WestEd.