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The Environment: Materials - Ensuring Staff Have Materials that Support Learning Goals

This lesson provides a brief overview of the materials that support development at different stages. It will help you demonstrate awareness of developmental ages and stages and work with staff to ensure developmentally appropriate materials are available in child development and school-age programs.

  • List ideas to consider when selecting toys and materials for your program.
  • Model decision-making about the appropriateness of materials.
  • Secure appropriate learning materials for your program through multiple means.
  • Develop systems to help track the materials you have and where they are in your program.


Materials have great influence on learning and behavior. Although environmental design and interest areas provide the spaces for learning to happen, it’s the materials within that can spark children’s imaginations and support their development. Staff should provide interesting and purposeful materials that are intentionally linked to curriculum activities. It’s important that in addition to the items above, you and your staff ensure that learning materials are:

  • Safe and durable
  • Accessible without teacher assistance or permission
  • Developmentally appropriate
  • Supportive of all the domains of development
  • Sufficient in quantity to support interests and learning goals
  • Aligned to curriculum and lesson plans
  • Well-organized

Ensuring that there are plenty of the right kinds of learning materials can help reduce conflict and boredom. If staff know that multiple children are interested in trains, they should make a point of providing materials that relate to that interest. If children enjoy play-dough, staff should have enough for a group of children to play together and perhaps create an idea together. When children are able to access materials on their own, time that would normally be spent waiting on staff members’ help becomes learning time.

No matter how skilled your staff members are at planning activities and creating a supportive learning environment, the amount of time children and youth spend in your program can still feel long. It’s important that your staff recognizes the value of changing the learning space and materials on a regular basis to ensure that children have a variety of experiences in your program.

Regarding environmental materials, one of your must important roles as a manager is securing appropriate materials for your program. How do you help staff decide what toys and materials are worth including in their programs? How do you work with your trainers and coaches to make purchasing decisions? Your knowledge of child development should guide your choices and suggestions.

The materials in each classroom or program should be intentionally chosen with the following factors in mind:

  • Cultural relevance
  • Developmental appropriateness
  • Connection to children’s interests
  • Variety
  • Link to learning goals

Cultural Relevance

Cultural relevance means that the toys and materials you provide reflect the backgrounds, knowledge, and experiences of the diverse children and youth in your program. By choosing materials that validate and empower children of all racial, ethnic, and social backgrounds, staff members build a bridge between children’s home and school lives that will support a strong foundation for learning.

Children can experience diversity in your program by seeing positive images of people from a variety of backgrounds. Staff members should provide items that represent cultures from around the world: cookbooks with pictures of food, fliers from ethnic grocery stores, fabrics, cooking utensils, traditional clothing. Encourage staff members to ask families to bring family photos and to lend the program items from their homes. Stock the library or reading area with books that give positive messages about age, gender, race, culture, family types, special needs, and linguistic diversity.

A child plays with dolls

Developmental Appropriateness

As children age, their needs change. The materials in your program should help children meet the important learning goals relevant to each developmental stage. Because children develop at different rates, choosing developmentally appropriate materials means providing a range of toys that can accommodate differences between individual children’s skills, interests, and characteristics.

A program stocked with developmentally-appropriate materials “fits” the child—the child should not have to adjust to fit the program. See the Developmentally Appropriate Materials Guide at the end of the Learn section for details about what children need at different stages in their development. Use the guide to facilitate decision-making by program staff and leadership.

Connection to Children’s Interests

Children learn best when their interests are incorporated. When possible, staff members should provide materials that capture children’s interests and extend their learning.

By considering children’s interest when choosing classroom materials, staff members can make connections that extend children’s learning to new areas. For example, if a few children become very interested in construction during the summer, the teacher could turn a part of the learning area into a construction zone by providing hard hats, shovels, measurement tools, gravel, or toy construction equipment. The creation of this construction zone might spark children’s interest in learning about bridges, which could lead to discussion about rivers and oceans or to types of transportation that move through water.

In this picture, notice how the teacher capitalizes on children’s interests in bugs and provides materials for inspecting and collecting bugs as well as documenting their findings.

A care-giver sits with children outside as they explore bugs with magnifying glasses


Not all toys are created equally; some toys spark imagination and others hinder imagination. You might have noticed that young children are often more interested in the box than the toy that came inside it. Why is this so? Because for a child, the box can become anything. It becomes a drum when you hit it. It becomes a house when you put a doll inside it. It becomes a hat when you put it on your head. The possibilities are endless.

Children learn and explore more when toys and materials have multiple uses. Unlike an empty box, toys that limit imaginative play, such as action figures or dolls with pre-set accessories or movements, can only be used in a limited number of ways.

Link to Learning Goals

Perhaps the most important consideration in terms of the materials in your program is the ways they support learning goals. Provide toys that promote math skills like sorting and patterning, literacy skills like letter matching and rhyming, social skills like turn-taking and problem solving, scientific knowledge, and knowledge of the social world around children. The general rule is that children should want to play with these materials.

Using the Internet and Technology as Learning Tools

As a program administrator, you will develop the rules and policies for how school-age program staff and children use the internet and technology. Applications or “apps,” computer games, and the internet are learning materials, just like toys and books, and your role is to collaborate with the coach or trainer to ensure your program has appropriate technology to support your school-age program’s learning objectives and curriculum. All children who use technology in your program will need support in learning digital citizenship. This is essential for their safety, and you can review Lesson Three of the Safe Environments course for guidance on supervision and safety during internet and technology use. The Office of Educational Technology, U.S. Department of Education defines digital citizenship as, “a set of norms and practices regarding appropriate and responsible technology use… and requires a whole-community approach to thinking critically, behaving safely, and participating responsibly online” (2015). Work with your coach or trainer to ensure that your program has specific digital citizenship rules for children, and review these rules on an ongoing basis so they reflect updated technology.

When determining appropriate devices and software to purchase for your program, consider how these learning materials support the Three C’s and accompanying questions developed by Lisa Guernsey:

  • Content: How does this help children learn, engage, express, imagine, or explore?
  • Context: What kinds of social interactions are happening before, during, and after the use of technology? Does it complement, and not interrupt, children’s learning experiences and natural play patterns?
  • The individual Child: What does this child need right now to enhance their growth and development? Is this technology an appropriate match with this child’s needs, abilities, interests, and development stage?

The Office of Educational Technology, U.S. Department of Education suggests caregivers and educators understand the difference between passive and active technology use. During passive technology use, a child consumes the content through watching a video or program without follow-up or an opportunity to connect what they viewed to something in their life. Active technology use involves creation, reflection, and storytelling. For example, a child who has a special interest in cheetahs creates a PowerPoint Presentation using pictures, facts, and other resources. This child may, with the help of an adult or peer model, research facts about cheetahs from reputable online websites or books and insert found pictures to support information about specific cheetah traits. This example of active technology use supports the child’s knowledge of the life sciences, ability to determine fact from fiction, collaboration with peers, and word processing skills. Think about what type of technology use you observe when you walk through your program. What ways can you support staff so technology use is active, aligns with learning goals and the curriculum, and connects to children’s lives and interests?

Computers, tablets, and other devices are types of learning materials that not every child in your program may have at home. Their opportunities to learn how to use technology may only occur in your program and their school, and it is important that you think about how technology creates equitable and culturally responsive learning experiences. Though printed books will always be an important learning material, having online references and materials more immediately provides children access to more and different types of information. A program with few children who are members of a tribal nation, for example, must work within the constraints of their budget to buy books, pictures, and toys that reflect these cultures. Using online resources, program staff may more easily be able to find pictures and information to create books and other learning materials that represent all children’s cultures.


As you work with staff members, trainers and coaches, you will need to model appropriate decision-making related to materials. When staff, trainers or coaches have questions about materials, ask four important questions (Dodge, Colker, & Heroman, 2002):

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


Let us look at some examples of developmentally-appropriate materials for infant and toddlers, preschoolers and school-age children and youth. In this first example, watch how this teacher involves preschool children in making decisions about materials. Second, you will see a video of a one-on-one meeting between a manager and a staff member, reviewing the staff member’s recent activity plans and related materials in her school-age program. Third, you will watch how different programs use materials to help send the message, “you belong here.”

Good Practice: Engaging Children in Material Selection

See how one teacher involves children in choosing materials.


Highlighting Staff Members' Material and Activity Choices

Watch a manager discuss a staff member’s activity and material selection for school-agers.


A Range of Materials That Help Children See Themselves

Watch how programs use materials to reflect children and families.



As noted above, when it comes to the environment, one of your most important roles as a manager is ensuring you have appropriate materials for your program. You can do this in a number of ways:

  • Budgeting: Inevitably, some toys and materials will be broken or need repair each year. There will be wear and tear, especially in childcare and youth settings where materials are used by many children for potentially hours each day. It is important that you adequately budget for repairing and buying new materials.
  • Purchasing: Work with your trainers and coaches, with feedback from your staff, about what materials are needed. When purchasing, remember to consider the following:
    • Is it durable enough?
    • Is it culturally relevant? Does is help contradict biases about gender, race, ethnicity or ability? Does it help represent diversity in your program and the local community?
    • Can it provide variety? It makes the most sense to spend your money on items that are more open-ended and can be used in a number of different ways.
    • As discussed in the safety course, make sure from the start that the materials are safe (and that they have not been recalled) for the age group for which you are purchasing.
    • Establish a regular purchasing cycle. This way you, trainers or coaches and staff can adequately discuss and prepare for orders, and your staff can reasonability predict when they can expect new or replaced items.
  • Networking and asking for donations: Not all materials must be purchased. One of the best ways to help staff members when new interests arise in their classrooms is to ask for relevant material donations from local area businesses, resources, or families. For example, if children have become increasingly interested in health-care settings and professions, a local university, hospital, or doctor’s office may be willing to donate relevant dramatic play items. If a group of school-age youth are interested in exploring pottery, is there a business nearby that could donate clay? Also, remember that you can involve families in simple ways by asking them to donate clean recycled materials or collect natural items for children to use in art or science and discovery areas. Just remember, with all donations, it is important that you check materials for safety before they are available for children to use.

Do not forget that materials also include the consumables that will be part of your program—paper, paint, stamp pads, and makers, pencils and crayons usually wear out or break after a few months use. Also remember the consumables that staff members use to make quality learning environments—pens for writing up curriculum, copies of checklists, ink and paper for photo printers, etc. Make sure you budget for these consumable items and that you have a regular cycle established to replenish them.

You should also have a way of tracking what is needed. You, trainers and coaches, and staff members should have systems in place to record what specific materials or toys were damaged and thrown out. Staff members may indicate in an art and writing storage area, for example, when they have taken a bottle of paint, a pack of construction paper, or a new crayon box. If you offer a quick and easy recording sheet right next to the materials, staff members can just check that they have removed an item. These kinds of systems will help keep your inventory up-to-date and make ordering and purchasing easier.

Staff Input

Also, to help staff provide materials based on children’s or youth’s interest, you should consider, as a manager, how you can logistically support this. As discussed above, one way to do this is to work with your trainers and coaches to ask for donations or seek out free resources. However, you could also consider providing each classroom its own small budget for materials. If you implement classroom budgets, you will likely need to establish some oversight for purchases. Offer clear guidance to staff about what the classroom budgets are for and how they should be used, and work with your trainers or coaches to make sure purchases reflect actual needs and that there are not more cost-effective ways of meeting classroom activity ideas. If giving each classroom its own budget is not feasible in your program, you could develop a material request form that would allow staff to offer suggestions.

You will likely receive catalogues showing you the new and latest items from a host of educational and childcare supply companies. Or, perhaps you will see new items vendors have on display when you attend child or youth related conferences. Remember to consult with your trainers and coaches and some of the staff members in your program before purchasing to receive advice and show that you respect the input of those who will use the materials with children on a day-to-day basis. If you cannot meet certain supply requests, explain why. If you let staff members know that other supplies were more critical at the time but that you have held onto their requests and will reconsider them in your next ordering cycle, this shows the staff members that you value their input. If a staff member requests an item that does not fit the characteristics outlined in this lesson, than you can use that as teachable moment to explain why you chose not to fill their request, and with your trainers and coaches, help the staff member find more appropriate materials.


Part of ensuring that staff have the materials they need involves your oversight of material storage and facilitating shared use. With help from trainers and coaches, you should have an inventory of materials across your program and know where they are located. Although some items may always remain in their respective classrooms, many other materials will rotate in and out of classrooms based on children’s current interests, learning goals, and planned activities. You should have a system in place for tracking “who has what” and for checking items out. You should also have systems in place that make it easy for staff members to find what they need in shared storage spaces. Just as labeling supports ease of use and independence for children, labeling both storage containers and shelves in storage spaces can help adults keep things organized. Having a strong inventory and an easy system for tracking where to find what will help make sure you are buying only what you need. Although having multiples of favorite items is important for decreasing frustration and increasing cooperative play amongst a group of children, this does not mean you need duplicates of all items for every classroom. Part of your role is to help facilitate the sharing and rotation of materials across program spaces.


A trainer or coach approaches you about some staff members’ requests to collect materials related to a new interest in their classroom—animal care. Brain storm how you would work with your trainer or coach to help staff acquire materials for this interest.

Once you have brainstormed how you would support this endeavor, review the suggested responses.


Use these resources to help staff reflect and make decisions about developmentally appropriate materials. Specifically, use the following resources to achieve these goals:

  •  Questions to Guide Reflection: Ensuring Developmentally Appropriate Materials - help staff think broadly about whether materials are inclusive regarding race, ethnicity, culture, language, family diversity, a child’s own interests, the ability for the material to engage children and inspire a variety of play, and a material’s relationship to your curriculum. 
  • Child’s Play: Toys and Games for Cooperation – suggests toys that inspire cooperation, imagination, literacy and language, math and problem-solving, science and exploration, and social studies.
  • Example of Supply Tracking - track a material’s location and dates of use to ensure ease when reordering. 
  • Checklist for Identifying Exemplary Uses of Technology and Interactive Media for Early Learning -  twelve-point checklist contains important guidelines to help you ensure the use of technology and interactive media in your program is developmentally appropriate.


Developmentally appropriate:
An item, toy, or activity is suitable for a child’s age and general level of development; it is safe and provides an appropriate level of challenge
Learning standards:
Goals that help staff define expectations for child and youth development; in this lesson, “learning standard” is meant to be synonymous with the goals staff set for children’s learning


Why are simple objects (like an empty box) often the most popular toys to play with?
Which of the following is not something you should look for in a classroom or program?
Sonya, a staff member in your program, comes to you with a concern about the books that were recently purchased by your program. She thinks the books show some outdated stereotypes. She is especially unhappy with the “damsel in distress” theme in several of the books and does not want to add more princess-themed books to her library. What should you do?
References & Resources

Bronson, M. B. (1995). The Right Stuff for Children Birth to 8: Selecting play materials to support development. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Epstein, A. (2007). The Intentional Teacher: Choosing the best strategies for young children’s learning. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Goodson, B. D., & Bronson, M. B. (1986). Which Toy for Which Child: A consumer's guide for selecting suitable toys. Washington, DC: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Guernsey, L. (2012) Screen Time: How electronic media—from baby videos to educational software—affects your young child. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Jacobs, G., & Crowley, K. (2007). Play, Projects, and Preschool Standards: Nurturing children’s sense of wonder and joy in learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology. (2015.).Ed Tech Developer’s Guide, A primer for software developers, startups, and entrepreneurs. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology. (n.d.). Guiding principles for the use of technology with early learners. Retrieved from