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Cultivating Creativity and Innovation: Environments and Materials

Spaces and materials are powerful elements of creativity. This lesson will highlight the significance of carefully choosing materials and toys to promote children’s creativity in preschool. You will learn about choosing culturally responsive creative materials and choosing materials that support the strengths, needs, and abilities of all children.

  • Identify the characteristics of a creative learning environment.
  • List examples of developmentally appropriate materials that promote creativity.
  • Define culturally responsive creative materials that address the needs of all children.


"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." - Pablo Picasso


When do you feel most creative? Is it when you are alone, or in the presence of others? Perhaps when you are at home, at work, or while driving somewhere? Are there spaces or environments that make you feel creative? Maybe your kitchen or backyard, a coffee shop, or a craft store? What elements of an environment make you feel creative? Is it the lighting? Perhaps music in the background? Colors or textures around you? Scents in the air? Individuals around you engaging in similar types of activities with you? There are no limits to what can inspire creativity.

Areas of a preschool classroom must be inviting, pleasing, and functional. This encourages focused, creative work and individual expression. Your job is to create spaces that promote a love for exploration and learning and a respect for children’s work, diverse ideas, individual differences, and cultural diversity. You must also provide a variety of materials. As you learned in Lesson Two, you should encourage different types of creative work on a daily basis. These types of experiences involve using a variety of tools and materials as well.

According to Drew & Rankin (2004), “when children have the chance to notice, collect, and sort materials, and when teachers respond to their ideas, the children become artists, designers, and engineers” (p. 5). Think about what you are doing to have an impact on children’s creativity. Do you pay attention to the materials they choose and use? Do you demonstrate curiosity and excitement as you see children manipulate different materials? Do you allow children to take risks as they test their ideas? How willing are you to let children lead the way to their own creative experiences?

Setting the Stage for Creative Experiences: The Environment

Creativity can happen anywhere! A creative environment includes high-quality interest areas within your classroom, or within other spaces throughout your program. These areas should contain developmentally appropriate materials for dramatic play, blocks and other construction materials, materials for science, art, writing, music and movement. The areas may also involve other experiences that allow children to explore their environment, use their imagination, and learn. For more information about developmentally appropriate materials and experiences, you can visit the Learning Environments course.

High-quality preschool environments should incorporate creativity throughout. Creative experiences such as art, music, dance, science, dramatic play, or block play do not exist in isolation. On the contrary, they can take place within social studies, literacy, math, or other areas. When these experiences are interwoven and varied, they provide opportunities for rich and meaningful learning opportunities in the classroom. This type of play-based learning helps children make new and, often, unexpected connections, which can promote creativity and foster more engaging classroom spaces.

As a preschool teacher, you are responsible for developing experiences that are not only play-based, but also centered around the interests of the children. When you respect and value their interests, children are more likely to be invested in their learning and engaged in your classroom- experiences. You can learn about children’s interests through observation, conversations with children or family members, and discussions with co-teachers and other school staff.

Materials that Foster Creativity

A variety of carefully chosen materials can foster creativity in children. Think of materials as a language for children (Weisman Topal, & Gandini, 1999). Materials enable children to express themselves, to share what they already know, to demonstrate existing skills, and to learn new skills. Materials should reflect children’s interests, as well as backgrounds, life experiences, and cultures. Additionally, materials should encourage different kinds of group or individual work in your classroom. This can involve spontaneous or more directed play.

The materials you choose to offer preschoolers should be stimulating and novel. They should have different textures, patterns, shapes, weights, colors, and purpose. A variety of interesting materials can spark children’s creativity and may include: blocks and other building materials, dress-up clothes, cars, trucks or trains, arts and crafts materials, music and dance materials, dolls and puppets. Additionally, with thoughtful planning, electronic devices and various forms of technology can be a way to support or enhance creative exploration. Materials that do not have a specific set of directions often lead to the most creativity. Everyday, inexpensive items can also foster creativity: empty cartons of all shapes and sizes, straws, fabric pieces, buttons, paper towel tubes, or empty plastic containers. Open-ended materials encourage exploration, discovery, transformation, and imaginative play. These materials can become anything the children want them to become! Encourage children to take risks in testing their theories as they engage with materials in new and unconventional ways.

Drew & Rankin (2004) identify seven principles for using open-ended materials in early childhood classrooms:

  • Children's spontaneous, creative self-expression increases their sense of competence and well-being now and into adulthood.
  • Children extend and deepen their understandings through multiple, hands-on experiences with diverse materials.
  • Children's play with peers supports learning and a growing sense of competence.
  • Children can learn literacy, science, and mathematics joyfully through active play with diverse, open-ended materials.
  • Children learn best in open-ended explorations when teachers help them make connections.
  • Teachers are nourished by observing children's joy and learning.
  • Ongoing self-reflection among teachers in the community is needed to support these practices.

Culturally Responsive Materials

Just as classroom experiences and activities should reflect the backgrounds, cultures, and diverse life experiences of children in your classroom, materials should demonstrate consideration and respect for diversity as well. Culturally responsive creative materials are materials that appeal to all learners from all cultures. Children should be able to see themselves, their families, their homes, and their communities in materials and activities each day.

“Children are capable learners, and in their hands, materials have unique abilities to construct and carry meaning and activate many learning processes.” Charles Schwall (Gandini et al., 2015, p. 62)

Addressing the Creative Needs of All Learners

Every child demonstrates creativity in a unique way. When it comes to children with developmental disabilities in your classroom, you may have to make adaptations or provide support that will enable these children to succeed. In general, children with special learning needs may require adaptations to the curriculum, classroom environment, and daily preschool activities. Consider a child with physical disabilities who may have a hard time reaching for art materials or moving during music and movement. Arranging your environment, for example, by changing the location of items or moving furniture to facilitate movement, will ensure that this child is able to actively engage in experiences just like his or her peers. A child who is experiencing challenges with attention may have a hard time staying focused during lengthy experiences. Allowing that child to take breaks may enable him or her to be successful. A child who seems to get easily over-stimulated may prefer working with fewer materials or may be more successful during structured experiences.

What are some things you are currently doing to support the creativity of all children in your classroom? Remember the following:

  • You should plan your classroom experiences with the needs of all children in mind. Your goal is to make sure every child is valued, successful, and encouraged to express creativity.
  • Talk with children’s family members for input on strategies or advice you may be able to use in your classroom. Remember that families know their children best!
  • Use children’s backgrounds as inspiration for ideas about creative experiences. When you engage children in experiences that reflect their heritage or cultures, children see themselves in these experiences and their engagement becomes even more meaningful.

Although many creative experiences should be child-directed, providing ideas, suggestions, or scaffolding to guide children’s thinking is an important strategy to use when supporting creative experiences. Scaffolding encourages children’s creativity rather than stifling it. When you see a child who seems unsure or is struggling with an activity, comments or questions like “I wonder what would happen if you used some of these materials to help your dinosaur stand upright,” or “What tools do you think you could use to make the dinosaur stand up?” can positively support their thinking and creativity. Some children may need some help, guidance, or modeling when using new or unfamiliar materials.

Engaging Families in Children's Creativity

You can help families of children in your classroom learn about creativity, and you should encourage them to extend the creative work you do in preschool. Ask families of children in your program to donate household items they no longer use or items they plan to recycle for use in your classroom experiences. This enables families to be engaged and feel connected with their children’s work. Include information about creative activities on your classroom bulletin board, in class newsletters, or in other forms of communication.

Lesson Four will provide additional ideas as well as resources on how to engage with families of children in your classroom and program about creativity.

Displaying Artwork

Displaying art is a way to allow children to share their creative work. There are many benefits to displaying artwork such as:

  • It enriches the environment and provides ownership for the children.
  • It gives children a sense of pride and confidence.
  • It encourages and inspires children to be creative.
  • It facilitates learning as children revisit their work and reflect on it.

Consider the various ways to display children’s work throughout the learning environment. A few examples are:

  • Use a wall or bulletin board to display work.
  • Hang pieces throughout the environment with rope or ribbon and clothespins.
  • Frame pieces of art and hang them on the wall — consider rotating pieces out so all children have a chance to be featured.
  • Use shelves or tables to display three-dimensional items, such as sculptures or pottery.
  • Make photocopies of artwork and turn them into greeting cards to write notes to families or add to a writing area.

When displaying work, give children the chance to create a nameplate with their name and the title of their piece. This will show that you value their work and allow them to feel proud of their creative accomplishment. Additionally, the nameplates can be used for saving work that the child may wish to revisit later.


A variety of carefully chosen materials can foster creativity in children. Watch this video to learn how materials promote creative expression in preschool.

Materials that Support Creativity

Watch how materials can promote children's creativity.


As a preschool teacher, consider the following when thinking how materials spark creativity:

  • Give all children access to materials that promote creative expression.
  • Be responsive to children’s individual differences and family backgrounds.
  • Demonstrate respect for children’s work by thoughtfully arranging materials and keeping the classroom clean and organized.
  • Label materials and display them at the children’s eye level.
  • Strive to create beautiful spaces for you and children to be inspired. Try framing children’s artwork and displaying their creations in school hallways and offices to showcase what they have been learning and exploring.
  • Surprise children by introducing them to new and unfamiliar materials.
  • Demonstrate using materials in unconventional ways such as blocks to measure distance, empty containers as instruments, and tablecloths as capes.
  • Rotate and introduce new materials regularly based on child interests.
  • Consider partnering with local museums, theaters, dance groups, or other organizations that foster and promote creative work. These can broaden the creative possibilities for children in your care.
  • Incorporate technology thoughtfully in creative experiences. Teach children how to use and care for devices in a safe and respectful manner.


What materials do you provide for children to engage in experiences that promote creative expression? In the Explore Section of Lesson Two, you were asked to reflect on experiences you provide that spark children’s creativity. In this lesson, you are asked to do the same, but focusing on materials rather than activities. In the Reflecting on Materials that Spark Creativity activity, list or describe materials you provide that spark children’s creativity and jot down ideas about additional materials you can use. Then, share and discuss your responses with your trainer, coach, or administrator.

If you are a CDA candidate, use the CDA Competency Statement II handout to reflect on how you support children's physical and intellectual development. This is a required item for the CDA Professional Portfolio.


According to leading researchers on play at the Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University, “basic is best” when it comes to young children’s toys and materials. Each year, the Toys that Inspire Mindful Play and Nurture Imagination (TIMPANI) study examines how young children engage with toys and identifies toys that promote high-quality imaginative play in preschool children. Use the document, Materials that Promote Creativity, to learn more about this study and for suggestions of preschool creative materials.


Cultural responsive experiences:
Using the perspectives and beliefs of children and their families as a tool to support learning


You and your co-worker are trying to find new ways to involve families in their children’s creative experiences at preschool. Your co-worker suggests asking each family to purchase a different color of paint for the art center. How do you respond?
True or false? Culturally responsive creative materials allow children to see their own and their peers’ cultures and cultural values in the preschool classroom.
A child in your classroom has been diagnosed with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. Which of the following would be an effective way for you to help them enjoy creative experiences in your classroom?
References & Resources

Berk, L. E. (2012). Child development (9th ed.). Allyn & Bacon.

Curtis, D. & Carter, M. (2011). Reflecting children’s lives: A handbook for planning your child-centered curriculum. Redleaf Press.

Curtis, D. & Carter, M. (2014). Designs for living and learning: Transforming early childhood environments (2nd ed.). Redleaf Press

Daly, L., & Beloglovsky, M. (2019). Loose parts 4: Inspiring 21st-century learning. Redleaf Press.

Drew, W. R., Rankin, B. (2004). Promoting creativity for life using open-ended materials. Young Children, 59(4). Retrieved from:

Eastern Connecticut State University. (n.d.). TIMPANI toy study.

Edwards, C. P., Gandini, L., & Forman, G. E. (2012). History, ideas, and basic principles: An interview with Loris Malaguzzi. In The Hundred Languages of Children (3rd ed., pp. 51–52). Praeger.

Epstein, A. S. (2014). The intentional teacher: Choosing the best strategies for young children’s learning (Revised ed.). The National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Gandini, L., Hill, L., Cadwell, L. B., & Schwall, C. S. (2015). The grammar of materials. In the spirit of the studio: Learning from the atelier of Reggio Emilia (Early Childhood Education Series) (2nd ed., p. 62). Teachers College Press.

Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, & practice (3rd ed.). Teachers College Press.

Minahan, L., Byrd, J., Dwyer, S., Romp, S., Viets, L., & Strekalova-Hughes, E. (2021). Sparking creativity with cross-area play. Teaching Young Children, 15(1).

National Association for the Education of Young Children (2022). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8 (4th ed.). The National Association of Education of Young Children.

Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective (6th ed.). Pearson.

Van Hoorn, J. L., Nourot, P. M., Scales, B., & Alward, K. R. (2014). Play at the center of the curriculum (6th ed.). Prentice Hall.

Weisman Topal, C., & Gandini, L. (1999). Beautiful stuff! Learning with found materials. Davis Publications, Inc.