- Define and describe “developmentally appropriate” materials.
- Recognize characteristics that make toys and materials interesting or relevant to children.
- Choose toys and materials that represent the cultures, interests and learning goals of your classroom.
When you entered your classroom for the first time, you were likely overwhelmed by the task of setting it up for children. Perhaps it was already full of toys, books and materials. You may have found yourself in a cycle of sorting and storing. Perhaps the materials are old and you have the opportunity to shop for replacements. Regardless of your situation, how do you decide what toys and materials to include in your classroom?
Looking through an early-childhood product catalog or walking through the aisles in a teacher supply store can overwhelm you with choices.
Toys and materials should be:
- Culturally relevant
- Developmentally appropriate
- Linked to children’s interests
- Varied toys and activities
- Linked to learning goals
Classroom materials should be culturally relevant. But what does this mean? Cultural relevance means your choice of materials should reflect the backgrounds, knowledge and experiences of the diverse children in your classroom. By choosing materials that validate and empower children of all racial, ethnic and social backgrounds, you will build a bridge between children’s home and school lives that will provide a strong foundation for learning. Remember this includes providing materials that send positive, inclusive messages about individuals with special needs.
There are many simple ways to expose children to positive images of people from a variety of backgrounds:
- In the dramatic play area, include clothes for men and women.
- Display pictures of men and women in a variety of jobs (police officer, construction worker, teacher, nurse, chef).
- Include items that represent cultures from around the world (cookbooks with pictures of foods, fliers from ethnic grocery stores, fabrics, cooking utensils, traditional clothing).
- Ask family members to lend you items from their homes.
- In the block area, add figurines or dolls that represent a range of ages, races and abilities.
- In the music area, offer musical instruments from around the globe and CDs of traditional and contemporary music.
- Stock your classroom library with books that give positive messages about age, gender, race, culture, special needs, family types and linguistic diversity.
- Look for games and toys that allow children to work together, take turns and celebrate each other’s successes.
Above all, remember to engage families in making your classroom a culturally appropriate space. Display framed pictures of families. Create family books with the children. Encourage family members to share their home language and to help you label items in the classroom with words from that language. For more information about making classroom materials culturally relevant, see the References & Resources section.
Toys and materials in your classroom should be developmentally appropriate. This means they should match the stage of development of the children in your care. Because children develop at different rates, choosing developmentally appropriate materials means you should have a range of toys available that can accommodate differences between individual children’s skills, interests and characteristics. A classroom stocked with developmentally appropriate materials “fits” the child—the child should not have to adjust to “fit” the classroom!
Between the ages of 3 and 5, children’s brains and bodies continue to develop. You will learn more about this in the Cognitive and Physical courses. Developmentally appropriate toys allow preschoolers to experiment and solve problems. Materials can encourage children to play with others, take turns and share. Preschool children also need toys and materials that let them move their bodies and that promote physical development.
Examples of developmentally appropriate materials for preschool-aged children include:
- Wooden blocks for building
- Baby dolls
- Balls of various shapes and sizes
- Floor puzzles with large pieces
- Simple games that require no reading and few pieces (e.g., Chutes and Ladders)
As you learned in the Safety course, you should also ensure the materials you provide are safe. All materials in your classroom should be made for preschool-aged children. Make sure your classroom is free of toxic materials (e.g., plants, art supplies, natural materials). Carefully supervise materials that could be difficult for developmentally younger children.
As part of selecting developmentally appropriate materials, you also want to assure that the developmental needs of all learners are considered. Information from the Kids Included Together (KIT, see https://www.kit.org/who-we-are/our-work/) can help teachers think about materials that may be especially useful to children with special needs. For example, some children with social-emotional or attention needs may benefit from fidgets, or small comfort items, that help them release energy (KIT, 2012). Examples of fidgets include:
- Pieces of felt
- Small bean bags
- Small plush toys
- Pipe cleaners
- Squishy balls
- Bendy material
Fidgets can be great items to include in your “cool down” area, or other quiet and calming spaces in your classroom, as they can help with self-soothing. For some children, fidgets can also be helpful during group meeting time, as they offer a release of energy in a quiet, nondisruptive way, which helps them to focus more easily on the experience at hand. Just ensure the children understand the proper use of fidgets and comfort items (e.g., you may have to explain what they are for and they are to remain in one’s lap).
Linked to Children’s Interests
Children learn best when adults incorporate their interests. Whenever possible, adults should provide materials that capture children’s interests and extend their learning. For example, if a few children are very interested in construction equipment during the summer months, the teacher could turn the sensory table, block area or a portion of the playground into a construction zone. Providing hard hats, shovels, measurement tools, gravel or toy construction equipment can help spark children’s imaginations. If children are interested in fairy tales, this would be a good opportunity to stock the dress-up area with fancy outfits and “magic” wands, and to include fairy tale books in the library area. You could even offer recycled materials in the art area for children to construct their own fairy tale castles or forts.
Perhaps a child had her first airplane trip recently, and airplanes and flying have become an interest to other children as well. To capture this interest and extend children’s learning in this area, you could do one or more of the following things:
- Read and display books about airplanes in the library.
- Set up the art area to allow children to construct their own “planes,” which they could experiment with “flying” in the discovery area.
- Make an “airport” area in the dramatic play area with appropriate materials and props (e.g., scarves, pilot hats, uniform pieces, plastic cups and food, large boxes that can be used as airplanes, small pieces of luggage, etc.).
By incorporating children’s interests when choosing classroom materials, you can help children make connections that extend their learning to new areas. For example, the creation of a “construction zone” might spark children’s interest in learning about bridges, which could lead to discussions about the ocean or types of transportation that move through water. Supporting children’s interest in fairy tales could lead to a discussion about magic, which could prompt some children to become interested in magic shows or simple magic tricks. Or, children might become interested in creating their own fairy tale stories (oral or written) with the help of a teacher. As discussed in the Indoor Environments lesson, provocations are a great way to incorporate children’s interest and help guide children’s play in productive, engaging ways.
Varied Toys and Activities
Not all toys are created equal. Some toys spark imagination and some hinder it. You might have noticed that young children are often more interested in the box than the toy that came inside it. Why? Because the box can become anything. It becomes a drum when you hit it, a house when you put a doll inside it, a hat when you put it on your head and a mask when you play hide and seek behind it. The possibilities are endless. Children learn and explore more when a toy is only limited by their imaginations. Consider the following list and think about why toys spark or limit imaginative play.
Toys that may limit imaginative play:
- Action figures or plastic dolls with preset accessories or movements
- Toys that talk, sing or dance
- Toys that are branded, such as with a TV show or popular character
- Work books or sticker books; art activities with a clear product
Toys that spark imaginative play:
- Dress-up clothes
- Large boxes
- Tools and items a child might find in the home
- Baby dolls
- Musical instruments
- Arts and crafts materials
- Items that are “open-ended” or can be used in a variety of different ways (e.g., blocks)
Linked to Learning Goals
It is perhaps most important to think about why you have selected the materials in your room. Ask yourself: how will this toy help children learn? What will they learn from the material? Use your knowledge of learning standards and the guidelines outlined by your curriculum to shape your classroom decisions. Look for 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. Here are some examples of learning goals and materials that address these common learning goals:
- Pattern blocks
- Alphabet magnets, beads, stamps, blocks
- Variety of writing tools and surfaces
- Variety of print materials
- Simple cooperative board games (e.g., “Count Your Chickens”)
- Cooperative movement games (e.g., wagon pull —children take turns pulling each other in wagons)
- Magnifying glass
- Interesting items for the natural environment
- Ramps and scales
Knowledge of the Social World
- Play money and cash register
- Dramatic play items that relate to different occupations
Look for toys that address these important learning goals through play and games. The general rule is that children should want to play with these materials. See the Explore and Apply sections for further examples of learning goals and materials that help address them.
Watch this video to see examples of toys and materials that promote learning.
To help make the best choices for the children in your classroom, be sure to:
- Talk to a trainer, coach or supervisor about materials that are most appropriate for your classroom.
- Watch how children play with materials. Introduce new materials when children seem bored or when they need a new challenge. Try offering provocations (see the Indoor Environment lesson) to help children explore materials in a new or more focused way.
- Interact with children as they play. Talk about their ideas and encourage them to take the next step in their thinking. Ask open ended questions (or questions without a right or wrong answer).
- Reflect on the materials in your classroom. If you notice any biased materials (e.g., books that only show male police officers), make a change.
- Ask families to get involved. Ask them to donate plastic jars, boxes or other items for your art, block or dramatic play area. Invite them to share traditions from their homes or culture. Make sure that a trainer, coach or supervisor approves material donations for use in the classroom.
- Get creative. You don’t have to buy materials for your classroom. Think about toys you can find or make with children.
Ask yourself the following questions about the materials in your program:
- 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?
The materials you already have in your classroom are powerful tools for learning. As you watch these videos of everyday experiences in preschool classrooms, think about what the children are learning. Download and print the Toys and Games activity. Watch the video and complete the chart while considering how different toys affect children’s play, learning and development. Share your responses with a trainer, coach or supervisor. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses.
Download and print the Toys For Learning Goals guide. This resource identifies developmentally appropriate toys for preschoolers. Use it to consider ways you can promote cooperation and learning in your classroom. Compare the materials from the videos earlier in this lesson and your classroom materials to the lists here. Talk to a trainer, coach or supervisor about how the materials in your classroom promote learning. For further suggestions regarding developmentally appropriate toys for preschoolers, see the References & Resources list.
|Cooperative games||Encourage cooperation and working together as a team. There are no individual “winners” and “losers”|
|Culturally relevant materials||Classroom materials that reflect the backgrounds, knowledge and experiences of the diverse children in the classroom|
|Developmentally appropriate materials||Fit the stage of development children are in, but still allow for differences between children in skills, interests and characteristics|
|Fidgets||Small items that allow for appropriate and nondisruptive release of energy or emotion. Fidgets can help children focus on the experience or problem-solving, instead of the energy or emotion in their bodies|
|Provocation||A picture, experience, display or item that provokes thought, interest, questions or creativity. Provocations provide children with inspiration or guidance on ways they can engage with materials|
Good Toys for Young Children. National Association for the Education of Young Children.
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.
Dubosarsky, M., Murphy, B., Roehrig, G., Frost, L. C., Jones, J., & Carlson, S. P. (2011). Incorporating cultural themes to promote preschoolers’ critical thinking in American Indian head start classrooms. Young Children, 66, 20-29.
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.
Heroman, C., Dodge, D. T., Berke, K., Bickart, T., Colker, L., Jones, C., Copley, J., & Dighe, J. (2010). The Creative Curriculum for Preschool (5th ed.). Bethesda, MD: Teaching Strategies, Inc.
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.
Kits Included Together (KIT, 2012). Supporting Children & Youth with Social-Emotional Needs. Kids Included Together & National Training Center on Inclusion. Retrieved from: http://www.kitonline.org/html/about/publications/2012_social_emotional_booklet_general_audience.html.