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Supporting Physical Development: Environments and Experiences

Physical development provides infants and toddlers with skills and abilities to explore and interact with the world around them. A supportive environment for infants and toddlers should be safe and interesting to encourage movement and exploration. This lesson will provide information on ways to create environments and experiences that support ongoing infant and toddler physical growth and development.

  • Describe ways the environment supports physical growth and development.
  • Identify experiences and materials needed to support physical growth and development for infants and toddlers at different stages.
  • Examine the environment to consider ways every infant and toddler can enhance their physical development.



An infant-toddler care and learning environment can accommodate young children at their current levels of development, provide appropriate challenges, and encourage the development of new and future skills. To develop new physical skills, infants and toddlers must have opportunities to a variety of interactions and experiences supported by responsive adult caregivers. A safe and supportive environment for infants and toddlers encourages movement and exploration of interesting objects to touch, grasp, mouth, shake, and pick up. It includes space to move around freely, crawl, pull-up, walk, climb, jump, and run. Additional information regarding ways to create safe and engaging care and learning environments for infants and toddlers can be found throughout the Safe Environments and Learning Environments courses.

Environments That Support Physical Development

Creating a safe environment that encourages movement is critical to a child’s physical and motor development. It is important to focus on how you can help infants and toddlers develop an active lifestyle from the beginning. Keep in mind that:

  • Infants and toddlers mature and develop physically at individual rates.
  • Motor development progresses through a sequence.
  • Infants and toddlers need to build on what they know, moving from simple to more complex skills.

The above points, along with the information you learned in Lesson Two, will help you consider the physical setup of the environment as well as the interactions, experiences, activities, and materials you offer.

Features of Environments that Support Physical Development

You, as an infant or toddler caregiver, should consider the characteristics of a safe environment that help support the physical development of the children in your care. Examples of environmental features that support physical health are:

  • Clean and safe: Provide young infants opportunities to play on their tummies and backs. Make sure the area is clean, and put anything away that would be considered unsafe for an infant to put in their mouth. Consider using a quilt, blanket, or soft mat. When young infants play on their backs on the floor, offer toys a little off to the side and above their heads to encourage reaching and turning, which can help them learn to roll over. During tummy time, remain close to infants and watch for signs of distress. Never, ever leave an infant unattended on their tummy as suffocation can occur.
  • Open space: Try to limit the use of swings, bouncers, and other furniture that constrains mobile infants. When caring for several children at once, offer toys on the floor for tummy time, space for mobile infants to crawl, or hanging toys for reaching.
  • Firm padding: Firm, washable pads, and cubes can be arranged to create interesting and challenging surfaces for crawling, creeping, walking and climbing.
  • Rounded edges: As mobile infants begin cruising, they need long, low, stable surfaces to hold on to. The edges of shelves, window sills, counters, and equipment at child height should have rounded corners so children can move freely without bumping sharp corners.
  • Platforms and sturdy structures: Sturdy structures that have secure platforms and steps encourage toddlers to climb. Stairs and platforms can provide access to a window or a mirror.
  • Safe objects to hold and stack: Be aware of the infant’s or toddler’s developing abilities to handle objects and offer appropriate materials that match these abilities. Mobile infants new to walking often enjoy carrying objects in their hands. Older toddlers enjoy stacking cups, fitting puzzle pieces into holes, and fitting rings on sticks.
  • Tables and chairs: Use appropriately sized tables and chairs so that all children can sit, play and eat safely and comfortably.
  • Outdoor play: Outdoor play: Offer the opportunity to move and engage with the natural world. Safe outdoor play areas challenge a toddler’s balance and stability while walking and climbing on uneven terrain and play structures.

Materials for Experiences that Support Physical Development

Offer a variety of materials and experiences that build on skills children currently have, and challenge them to use current skills in new and different ways. As you continue to create experiences for the infants and toddlers in your care, remember that young children of the same age often display different skills and develop at different rates. As the caregiver, continue to observe each infant or toddler carefully to consider how you can adapt interactions or experiences to meet their needs. Choose materials depending on the interests and needs of the infants and toddlers in your care, noting new physical skills that develop.

Review the following tables for different experiences and materials that support infants and toddlers:

Gross-Motor Development (Large Muscles)

Soft, washable mats or wedgesYoung infants have an opportunity to strengthen muscles and learn to hold their heads up when placed on their stomachs. Make it easier for an infant to lift their head by placing them on a slanted surface.
Firm, smaller-sized pillows or sit-me-up play units (depending on your program’s policy). Play frame with hanging toysUse small pillows or a sit-me-up chair to support an infant who is learning to sit up, as you sit next to him or her — this helps strengthen the back, neck and stomach muscles so the infant can eventually sit without adult support. Infants learn to reach and bat at toys while lying on their back under a play gym. Placing toys out of their reach encourages them to reach across their midline and eventually roll to their side.
Balls of various sizes and texturesInfants can use balls to roll back and forth while sitting or crawling; toddlers will enjoy kicking and throwing balls.
Push and pull toysSturdy push and pull toys can be used by mobile infants and toddlers as they continue to develop balance and muscle control while crawling and walking around.
Sturdy climbing structuresClimbing and crawling over a variety of structures and surfaces encourage motor skill development.
Large stacking blocksInfants enjoy holding, carrying, and playing with foam or rubber blocks of various textures.
Pretend cooking items (pots and pans) as well as dress-up clothesWith support from adults, toddlers will begin trying on dress-up clothes and pretend adult shoes, which helps improve muscle development, balance, and coordination.
Music, rattles, musical instruments, scarvesGross-motor skills are developed and enhanced as infants and toddlers bounce, dance, and move to music.
Scooters (no pedals), tricycles, riding toys and wagonsLearning to use your feet to move the pedals of a tricycle or to pushing across the room enhances gross-motor skills and coordination through repetition and practice.

Fine-Motor Development (Small Muscles)

Rattles and other small toys (including musical instruments).Fine-motor skills are developed and enhanced as infants and toddlers grasp, hold, carry, and shake toys and instruments.
Stacking blocks, pop beads, nesting cupsGrasping, turning, and stacking can help older mobile infants and toddlers refine their fine-motor skills.
Pretend cooking items (pans, pots, spoons, pretend food) as well as dress-up clothesOlder mobile infants and toddlers will pretend to cook, stir, carry, and put things in and take things out of bags and baskets. As they try on play clothing, older toddlers can practice zipping and buttoning.
Easels, paint brushes, child-safe scissors, smocks, play dough tools (e.g., rollers)Mobile infants and toddlers can practice drawing, playing with play dough, and painting with fingers, brushes, or other items. To strengthen skills and provide new challenges for children working toward mastery consider changing the direction children face the material they are writing on, upwards, downwards, in front. Also, consider different shapes and sizes of writing utensils to provide new challenges and strengthen skills.
Balls of various sizes and texturesFine-motor skills are enhanced as mobile infants and toddlers roll and attempt to throw balls.
Simple puzzles, cars, trucks, toy animals, large beads with stringing lacesUsing puzzles and other manipulative items requires fine-motor control and hand-eye coordination.
Sturdy books — board, vinyl, and cloth booksFine-motor skills are enhanced as infants and toddlers practice holding and turning pages in books. Exposing kids to various textures can aid in sensory development.

Sensory Experiences: Indoors and Outdoors

For healthy physical development it is important for children to learn about the natural and physical world around them. Sensory experiences help strengthen the connections among brain cells, which is important for learning and supporting development. From birth, children begin learning about their world by touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, and hearing. For example, as toddlers play and explore materials with their hands at a sand and water table, they are using their sense of touch; which is supporting their use of fine-motor muscles. As toddlers scoop and dump different materials, they strengthen their muscles and create opportunities to build skills that will help them use spoons and drink their milk from a cup during mealtime.

As a caregiver, you should strive to provide daily opportunities for infants and toddlers to be outside (weather permitting) and interact with living things (plants, classroom pets) throughout their day. Research shows that children who play outdoors regularly have more active imaginations, lower stress levels, and have greater respect for themselves and others. You can also enhance sensory learning by providing infants and toddlers with a variety of materials and experiences, such as sand, water tables, and other materials with visual and textural qualities.

Below are additional creative ways to support sensory experiences indoors and outdoors:

Indoor Experiences

  • Low storage shelves that allow infants and toddlers to see and access safe toys and materials
  • Teething toys for kids to explore with their mouth
  • Aquarium that is secured on a shelf in a safe area
  • Sensory table with shovels, cups of different sizes, funnels, sifters, etc. (e.g. shredded paper, dried leaves, snow, sand, and water)
  • Live plants
  • Magnets (large enough that young children cannot swallow)
  • Rattles and other items to hold and squeeze  (e.g. plastic bottles with securely fastened lids filled with dried beans or corn, cut up straws with rice, clear hair gel and water with glitter and Lego pieces)
  • Quilts or blankets that are made of different types of fabric and materials (e.g., buttons tightly sewn onto a piece of fabric, different-colored and patterned fabrics, etc) - place the quilt on the floor for infants to explore

Outdoor Experiences

  • Benches, logs, and bridges providing opportunities to practice sitting, standing, and climbing
  • Paths of wood chips, sand, or mulch easily aid the safe movement of infants and toddlers learning to walk
  • Sand box or designated area for digging dirt
  • Different colored flowers, leaves and long, soft grasses that infants and toddlers can look at, touch, smell, and pick
  • Mobiles, mirrors, and other sculptures for the outdoor environment and gardens
  • Experiences with sound and touch such as trickling water, bird baths, and wind chimes
  • Bubble blowing for infants and toddlers to watch as well as reach for and pop
  • Outdoor sidewalk chalk and paint for toddlers

Each infant and toddler will have unique preferences and a personal comfort level with sensory experiences and materials. Observe throughout the day to help determine which types of sensory experiences and materials work best and are most engaging for each child in your care.

  • What do you notice in infants and toddlers when playing music and using musical instruments?
  • While washing hands, do some children seem to enjoy exploring the water, soap, and bubbles?
  • During mealtimes, do you notice some children exploring their food with their hands? What is their comfort level in handling food with their hands?
  • While outdoors, do you notice any infants or toddlers who seem to enjoy playing in the dirt? Playing and rolling around in the grass?

It’s very common for young children to appear uncomfortable with certain sensory experiences. This may be related to having little exposure to a material, or few experiences with a particular material. If you find that a child is uncomfortable with a specific type of material, you can:

  • Place the material in a plastic, sealable bag to allow them explore the material with the bag serving as a barrier
  • Provide other materials to explore with, such as a paintbrush or sponge

To prevent injury, it is very important to remember that infants and toddlers must be carefully supervised as they explore materials (e.g., water or sand from the sand and water table) with their hands and mouths.


Physical Development: Outdoor Environments and Experiences

Watch this video to learn about outdoor environments and experiences that support the physical development of infants and toddlers.


There are many different experiences and materials that can be offered to help the children in your care grow and develop physically. Read through the following examples — and pick at least one to try. Share your observations and thoughts with a trainer, coach, or administrator.

  • Post pictures and mirrors at eye level on the wall.
  • Hang a mobile that infants can see and kick.
  • Place interesting and colorful toys outside an infant’s reach — encourage the child to reach or scoot to obtain it.
  • Provide soft objects for mobile infants to crawl over.
  • Read a thick board book and help an older infant or toddler practice turning the pages or pointing at pictures.
  • Show a toddler how to push and pull objects.
  • Provide a toddler with materials for scribbling and drawing.
  • Create a board with zippers, buttons, or fasteners for toddlers to use and practice.
  • Sing songs and do finger plays with infants and toddlers.
  • Setup an obstacle course and encourage mobile infants and toddlers to climb, jump and explore.


Use the handout, Experiences and Materials to Support Physical Development below to think about different experiences and the ways you can use materials to support infant or toddler physical development. Record your experience or activity ideas, identify the materials needed, and highlight the area of physical development supported. Share your ideas with your trainer, coach, or administrator.

It is important to offer learning experiences and activities that are appropriate, engaging and supportive of children’s learning and development across various developmental domains including cognitive, social-emotional, physical, language and literacy, and creative development. Staff working toward their CDA credential should use the CDA Indoor Fine Motor Activity Plan handout to develop an indoor fine motor learning experience from your curriculum (or a new activity you plan on implementing).


Take a moment to think about your favorite outdoor experience as a young child. Do you still enjoy doing this outside? Could it include the infants or toddlers in your care? Review the handout, Outdoor Play below, to discover ways you can support exploration of the natural world. Come up with two experiences you can offer an infant or toddler to promote their physical development.

Then, complete the handout: Observation and Application: Supporting Physical Development below. Share your thoughts and responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.


Fine-motor development:
This refers to the development of skills that involve the use of smaller muscles in the arms, hands, and fingers that allows a child to perform tasks such as drawing, cutting with scissors, stringing beads, tying, zipping, or molding clay
Gross-motor development:
This refers to the development of skills that involve the use of large muscles in the legs or arms, as well as general strength and stamina. Examples of such skills include jumping, throwing, climbing, running, skipping or kicking


A new family visits your program and asks how you encourage physical development in your infant-toddler classroom. You say that. . .
True or false? Since infants and toddlers mouth many items, it is best not to plan many sensory experiences indoors or outdoors.
Which of the following are materials you can use with infants and toddlers to support fine-motor skills?
References & Resources

Brachfeld, S., Goldberg, S., & Sloman, J. (2005). Parent-infant interaction in free play at 8 and 12 months: Effects of prematurity and immaturity. Infant Behavior and Development, 3: 289-305.

Casby, M.W. (2003). The development of play in infants, toddlers and young children. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 24(4): 163-174.

Claxton, L.J., Keen, R., & McCarty, M.E. (2003). Evidence of motor planning in infant reaching behavior. Psychological Science, 14: 354-356.

Cress, C., Moskal, L., & Hoffman, A. (2008). Parent directiveness in free play with young children with physical impairments. Comunication Disorders Quarterly, 29(2): 99-108.

DiCarlo, C.F., Reid, D.H., & Strickin, S.B. (2006). Increasing toy play among toddlers with and without disabilities by modifying the structural quality of the classroom environment. NHSA Dialog: A Research-to-Practice Journal for the Early Intervention Field, 9: 49-62.

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.

Hillary L. Burdette and Robert C. Whitaker, “Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children: Looking Beyond Fitness and Fatness to Attention, Affiliation, and Affect,” JAMA Pediatrics 159 (1) (2005): 46–50

James, K. (2010). Sensori-motor experience leads to changes in visual processing in the developing brain. Developmental Science, 13: 279-288.

McHenry, J., & Buerk, K. (2008). Infants and Toddlers Meet the Natural World. YC Young Children, 63(1), 40-41.