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    • Describe ways the environment supports physical growth and development.
    • Identify experiences and materials 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 his or her physical skills.




    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 skills. To develop new physical skills, infants and toddlers must have opportunities for 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 Safety and Learning Environments courses.

    Environments That Support Physical Development

    It is important to create a safe environment that encourages movement at every stage of motor development. Ultimately, you must focus upon 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, going from simple to complex skills.

    The above points, along with the information you learned in the Developmental Milestones lesson, 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 helps support the physical development of the children in your care. You can learn even more about creating safe environments for infants and toddlers within the Safety course. 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 his or her mouth. Consider using a quilt, blanket or soft mat. When young infants are playing on the floor on their backs, offering toys a little off to the side and above their heads encourages reaching and turning, which can lead to rolling over. During tummy time, remain close to infants and watch for signs of distress.
    • 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. 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 changing abilities to handle objects and offer 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.

    Materials within Experiences that Support Physical Development

    There are many different materials and experiences that can be offered to help infants and toddlers develop their physical skills. 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 in different ways. As the caregiver, you should continue to observe each infant or toddler carefully to consider how you can adapt the interaction or experience to meet his or her needs. You will choose materials depending on the interests and needs of the infants and toddlers in your care, and the new physical skills of infants and toddlers will enable increased learning.

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

    What I Know About Their Development

    Soft, washable matsYoung infants have an opportunity to strengthen muscles and learn to hold their heads up when placed on their stomachs.
    Firm, smaller-sized pillows or sit-me-up play units (depending on your program’s policy)Use small pillows or sit-me-up’s to support an older 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.
    Balls of various sizes and texturesToddlers can use balls to roll back and forth while sitting; older toddlers will enjoy kicking 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.
    Short or small climbing structures

    Riding toys

    Unrestricted movement and a variety of structures and surfaces facilitate physical challenge and skill development.
    Large stacking blocksInfants enjoy holding, carrying, and playing with foam or rubber blocks of various textures.
    Pretend cooking items (pans and pots) as well as dress-up clothesWith support from adults, toddlers will begin trying on dress-up clothes and pretend adult shoes, which helps strengthen 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, sturdy and appropriate climbing structuresClimbing up and down, jumping, and learning to use feet to move the pedals of a tricycle enhance gross-motor skills and coordination through repetition and practice.
    Rattles and other small toys to grasp, hold and shake (including musical instruments).Fine-motor skills are developed and enhanced as infants and toddlers hold, carry, and use 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.
    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.

    Sensory Experiences: Indoors and Outdoors

    Learning about natural and the physical world around them is important for infants’ and toddlers’ healthy physical development. From birth, children begin learning about their world by touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, and hearing. Sensory experiences help strengthen the connections among brain cells, which is important for learning and supporting physical development. For example, as a toddler plays and explores materials with his or her hands at the sand and water table, he or she utilizes the sense of touch, which supports the 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 milk from a cup during mealtimes.

    As a caregiver, you should strive to provide daily opportunities for infants and toddlers to be outside (weather permitting) and with living things (plants, classroom pets) in the care setting. You can also offer sensory learning by providing infants and toddlers with a variety of materials and experiences, including a sand and water table and materials with visual and textural qualities.

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

    Indoor Experiences

    Outdoor Experiences

    Low storage shelves that allow infants and toddlers to see and access safe toys and materials

    Benches, logs, and bridges providing opportunities to practice sitting, standing, and climbing

    Teething toys

    Paths using different types of surfaces, such as wood chips and sand, for infants and toddlers to walk and move

    Aquarium that is secured on a shelf in a safe area

    Sand box or designated area for digging dirt

    Sensory table with shovels, cups of different sizes, funnels, sifters, etc.

    Different-colored flowers and long, soft grasses that infants and toddlers can look at, touch, smell, and pick

    Live plants

    Mobiles, mirrors, and other sculptures for the outdoor environment and gardens

    Magnets (large enough that young children cannot swallow)

    Experiences for sound and touch such as trickling water, bird baths, and wind chimes

    Rattles and other items to hold and squeeze

    Bubble blowing for infants and toddlers to watch as well as reach for and pop

    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 sidewalk chalk and paint for toddlers

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

    • What do you notice in infants and toddlers while playing music and using musical instruments?
    • While washing hands, do some infants or toddlers seem to enjoy exploring the water, soap, and bubbles?
    • During mealtimes, do you notice infants or toddlers exploring their food with their hands? What is their comfort level when 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 is very common for infants and toddlers to appear uncomfortable with certain sensory experiences. This may be related to having little exposure to or few experiences with a particular material. If you find that an infant or toddler is uncomfortable with a specific type of material, you can:

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

    It is also 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) using their hands and mouths and to prevent injury.

    To learn more about supporting infants’ and toddlers’ exploration of the natural world and developing physical skills outdoors, please see handouts Outdoor Play and Infants and Toddlers Meet the Natural World, both available in the Apply section.


    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 infants and toddlers grow and develop physically. Read through the following examples — and pick at least one to try. Share your observations and thoughts with a supervisor, trainer or coach.

    • Post pictures and mirrors at eye level on the wall.
    • Hang a mobile that infants can see and kick at.
    • 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 lifting and turning pages.
    • 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.



    Download and print the handout, Experiences and Materials to Support Physical Development. Next, 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.



    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 two handouts, Outdoor Play, which can be found below, and as well as the information on this page, originally published in the National Association for the Education's Young Children journal: to discover ways in which you can support exploration of the natural world. Come up with two experiences you can offer an infant or toddler.

    Then, download and print the handout Observation and Application: Supporting Physical Development and complete the form. Share your thoughts and responses with a supervisor, trainer, or coach.


    Fine-motor developmentThis 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 developmentThis 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.

    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.