Skip to main content

Supporting Cognitive Development: Environments and Materials

High-quality environments and learning materials are essential to promoting positive growth and development in children and youth. This lesson will focus on ways you can help staff members design high-quality environments for children in their care.

  • Describe the significance of high-quality environments and materials for cognitive development.
  • Discuss the importance of planning for environments and materials that address the needs of all learners.
  • Identify management practices to support staff in planning meaningful environments and materials for children and youth.


The Importance of Environments

Just like adults, children are affected by their environments. It is our job to ensure classrooms and other learning spaces for children make them feel welcome, secure, and ready to learn. Classroom and program learning environments and materials should be organized yet flexible and responsive to children's changing needs. This will help maximize children's engagement and learning.

As you learned in Lesson 1, cognitive development is all about thinking and learning. When children imitate caregivers’ actions, that is cognitive development. When they pretend to be a storekeeper or a mommy, that’s cognitive development. When they read books during quiet time, that’s cognitive development. When they discover something new, that’s cognitive development. When they sing songs, that’s cognitive development.

Environments and Materials that Promote Children's Cognitive Development

In their own courses, staff members have learned the importance of meaningfully planning environments and materials as well as strategies for meeting the needs of individual learners. You should work with Training & Curriculum Specialists to reinforce learning as staff members may need support in knowing how and when to use the strategies they have learned. As highlighted in Lesson Two in this course (Cognitive Development: Helping Staff Members Understand Child Development), it is critical to understand the needs of children with IEPs or IFSPs, but it is equally important to understand that all children and youth need individualization. Help them consider and plan for the preschooler who needs an extra challenge, the toddler who is learning more than one language, or the pre-teen who sits quietly by herself. Work with the Training & Curriculum Specialists to identify training needs for the staff in your programs and to make sure that all children are getting the support they need.

As you learned in Lesson Three (Cognitive Development: Interactions that Support Learning), it is also important to help staff reflect on their cultural beliefs and values, as well as their biases. To support staff members as they reflect on their own cultures, you should be prepared to ask questions and guide discussions. It can also be valuable to engage in reflection activities along with staff. We all have biases that come from our life experiences and the culture we were raised in. If we can accept that we have biases, then we can reflect on how our biases present themselves in our work. When we are aware of our bias, we can consciously and actively work to behave in respectful and culturally sustaining ways.

The Importance of Inclusive Environments and Materials

There are many ways in which you can model an inclusive attitude with staff members. There may be unintentional and implicit biases related to race, culture, family traditions, disabilities, language, or family structures in your program. Several observation tools (like the ECERS-3 for early childhood programs and the Council on Accreditation's Program Observation Worksheet) have guidelines for promoting cultural and linguistic diversity. As you spend time in classrooms and school-age settings, you should be aware of the following:

  • Biased language. Watch for language that may send stereotypical messages. Staff members may call children "baby girl," "big boy," or "cutie" rather than their given names. Do staff members comment equally on girls' and boys' appearances and accomplishments? Do they praise African American boys for their athleticism more than their academic achievements? Do they comment on children's size (e.g., "He's going to be a football player")? Do they encourage girls and boys to play sports or lift weights? Do they encourage girls to "be careful" while saying "boys will be boys"? Do staff members encourage peaceful solutions for all children (e.g., avoid directions like not hitting kids with glasses)?
  • Stereotypical play opportunities. Are children encouraged to play in stereotypical ways based on their gender (e.g., girls with dolls and boys with trucks)? Do boys and girls get equal access and encouragement to engage in dramatic play, woodworking, music, science, active or messy play?
  • Biased materials. Do posters, photos, and displays represent the children in the classroom and the broad range of human experiences? Are there any stereotypical images (i.e., Native Americans in "war paint")? Are men and women portrayed equally in images of physical, intellectual, and service professions? Are there respectful and strength-based images of people with disabilities? Are there books in a variety of languages? Do books represent real-world experiences?

If you see any examples of bias in your programs, have a conversation with staff and provide learning opportunities through trainings, guest speakers, book studies, etc. Model respectful and culturally sustaining language and interactions. Make it clear that there are many ways to care and interact with children and build nurturing and responsive relationships. We all benefit from a range of experiences and our social identities do not define our interests or abilities.

Environments and Materials that Address the Needs of All Learners

There are many things you can do, along with the coach, to support staff in helping all children meet important learning goals. Encourage staff to gather information about each child to learn what each child can do well and what seems to be hard. Your staff will also need to know child and youth preferences and motivators. Gathering information will help them know the skills and strategies that are likely to help a particular child in their care.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL; CAST, 2018) is one strategy you can share. UDL helps all people learn and be successful in their environments. There are examples of universal design all around us: audio books, curb cutouts for strollers and wheelchairs, keyless entry on cars, and electric can openers. Many of these tools were developed for people with disabilities, but they make life easier for all of us. Using the concept of UDL, staff can support all children, including children with disabilities in their learning environment by:

  • Using adaptive toys and eating utensils
  • Using picture schedules
  • Adapting seating arrangements
  • Providing multiple ways for children to learn information (e.g., reading a book, watching a video, using the internet to research a topic)
  • Using materials in children’s home languages
  • Sharing vocabulary words with school-age children before reading them a story

The Figure below shows three Universal Design for Learning guidelines and offers examples of each.


How children become interested and motivated to learn

  • Offer choices and provide learners with as much autonomy as possible
  • Provide information and activities that are relevant and based on the child’s interest
  • Vary activities and information
  • Provide activities that allow for active participation and exploration
  • Create a safe, supportive space for learners
  • Vary levels of novelty, risk, or sensory stimulation
  • Formulate and remind learners of goals
  • Differentiate the degree of difficulty of an activity and scaffolding provided
  • Encourage peer collaboration
  • Provide individual feedback
  • Provide prompts, reminders, guides, checklists to support self-regulation


How adults display information and provide directions

  • Display information in different text sizes, text font, images, tables, color
  • Vary the volume or rate of speech or sound
  • Use text equivalents in forms of captions or automated speech-to-text
  • Provide visual diagrams, charts, notations of music or sound
  • Provide non-visual alternatives
  • Provide access to text-to-speech
  • Pre-teach vocabulary and symbols
  • Make key information also available in child’s home language
  • Provide checklists, organizers, sticky notes, reminders for organizing information
  • Give prompts for each step of a process

Action & Expression

How children respond and show what they know

  • Provide alternatives for physically interacting with materials
  • Make assistive technologies available
  • Provide alternative media for expression (I.e., manipulatives, text, speech, drawing, comics, storyboards, animations)
  • Allow for tools like spell check, word prediction software, text-to-speech software, calculators etc.
  • Provide different strategies, examples, or approaches to solving a problem
  • Provide scaffolding that can be gradually removed
  • Guide appropriate goals setting and strategies to achieve goals
  • Provide a variety of organizational aids

Management Practices That Support High-Quality Learning Environments and Materials

Take time to model the following behaviors that support efforts to promote children's learning.

  • Spend time observing in classrooms or programs. Make special notes about children you see struggling. Also be sure to note children who need an additional challenge.
  • Hold high expectations for all staff members when it comes to children and youth outcomes by setting learning goals for all age groups.
  • Seek out knowledge of the cultures and preferences of the families you serve and ensure those preferences are integrated throughout environments and materials.
  • Talk to staff members about the ways they support children's learning by designing meaningful environments and using developmentally appropriate materials. Recognize their accomplishments and encourage them when they are struggling. Be a resource for staff members and help them find ways to reach each child.
  • Provide community based resources such as guest speakers; support attendance to workshops and conferences for staff members.
  • Use multiple data sources such as classroom observations to evaluate and provide feedback on how effectively staff are designing environments and choosing materials.
  • Ensure professional development plans have identified goals for meaningful environment design based on classroom observations.
  • Recognize skilled staff members who demonstrate an understanding of the significance of environments and materials and have them mentor less experienced staff members.

Addressing the Needs of All Learners

Watch staff share how they address the needs of all learners.


There will be times when teachers and staff in your program will come to you with concerns about a particular child or children. Review the scenarios in the Adaptations Activity. Training & Curriculum Specialists also have this activity in their course. Talk with the T&CS in your program about how you would respond to these scenarios. Are you responding consistently? What steps would need to be taken in each of your unique roles? After you have completed the scenarios and discussed them with the T&CS at your program, compare your answers to the suggested responses.


Use the resources in this section to help you and your staff be sensitive to the needs of diverse learners in your program.

The first activity is a checklist you can use to review children’s books for bias. As common stereotypes and broad generalizations sometimes sneak into our programs, it is important to take some time to look through the books, toys, and materials in your programs to ensure that people of all racial identities, cultures, ethnicities, ages, gender, and abilities are equally and appropriately represented. Review the Culture and Children’s Literature activity. Use this activity to review children’s books for common stereotypes and write your responses.

The second activity will help you support staff if they need help thinking of ideas to help individual children in their classroom and program. Use the Problem Solving Planning Form to help staff members brainstorm solutions to problems they face. First identify the problems a child faces (e.g., cannot reach the sensory table). Then think of as many solutions as possible (e.g., lower the table, provide a smaller portable table, etc.).

The third activity is a Resource List. Use it to think of additional ways to support the cognitive development of every child in your program.


Changing the delivery of instruction or classroom activities without changing learning goals
Bias is a set of preconceived notions or prejudices that influence how we interact with others. We are often unaware of our biases
Culture comprises all we learn or transmit to and from the people around us. It includes arts, beliefs, institutions, behaviors, attitudes, values
Home language:
The language used by a family in their living place. This could be the family’s native language or one adopted by the family. It may be different from the language they use for business or social events
Materials or objects that represent an oversimplified, biased, or outdated image of a person or people. An example of a stereotype is that women do the cooking


True or false? It is important for staff to understand that only children with IEPs (Individual Education Program) and IFSPs (Individual Family Service Plan) need individualization.
Which of the following is not a behavior that supports staff in their efforts to provide high-quality environments and materials?
Finish this statement: Universal Design for Learning (UDL)…
References & Resources

CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. 

Derman-Sparks, L., & Edwards, J.O. (2010). Anti-bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Hanft, B. E., Rush, D. D., Sheldon, M. L. (2004). Coaching Families and Colleagues in Early Childhood. Brookes Publishing, Inc.

Iruka, I., Curenton, S., and Durden, T. (2020). Don't Look Away: Embracing Anti-bias Classrooms. Gryphon House.

Kids Included Together. (2022).

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2009) Where We Stand on Responding to Linguistic and Cultural Diversity.