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Cultivating Creativity and Innovation: Environments and Materials

Spaces and materials are powerful drivers for creativity. This lesson will highlight the significance of carefully organizing and  selecting materials to promote creativity. 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.
  • Discuss materials that promote creativity in school-age children.
  • 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.

Setting the Stage for Creative Experiences: The Environment

Creativity can happen anywhere! A creative environment includes high-quality interest areas throughout your school-age 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 school-age environments should incorporate creativity throughout. Creative experiences such as art, music, dance, science, or dramatic 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 school-age program. This type of learning helps children make new, and often, unexpected connections, which can promote creativity and foster more engaging spaces.

As a school-age staff member, you are responsible for developing experiences that are not only diverse and engaging, but also centered around the interests of the children and youth in your program. When you respect and value their interests, children are more likely to be invested in their learning. You can determine children’s interests through observation, conversations with children or family members, and conversations with co-teachers and other school staff.

Drama and Discovery in the School-Age Learning Environment

Drama and discovery are two important aspects of a school-age learning environment. They are both terms that can be used to describe a large variety of activities and experiences. Chances are that all school-age programs have materials and areas in place for these two creative arts subject areas.

Drama includes acting, pantomime, improvisation, characterization, and play production. As school-age children grow, you will see changes in the ways they manipulate dramatic play areas. In addition to playing house or grocery store, they might reenact scenes from their favorite books, movies, or television shows. You can also bring learning to life through a dramatic approach. Actively engaging and moving with children provides a richer dialogue and opportunity to experience the world as if you were someone else.

Discovery can include just about anything! School-age children are curious risk-takers who will want to discover everything they can about the world around them. They will want to make scientific hypotheses and predictions when reading a book or watching a movie. They will want to discover nature and the world around them. Another aspect of discovery is cause and effect. School-age children are developmentally able to understand the concept of cause and effect, and will enjoy conducting experiments to test their theories.

Building and Construction Materials for School-Age Children

Building and construction experiences require imagination, design, and creativity. To enhance areas where blocks and other traditional building materials are used, try adding items like natural pieces of wood, cardboard tubes, boxes, and duct tape to see how children might use them. To encourage building on a smaller scale, set out items like toothpicks and marshmallows for constructing. You might also consider adding images of the community to the area to promote creativity. Should there be an interest in constructing a particular place, such as a zoo or amusement park, you can add books or other materials to the area for reference.

Dramatic Discoveries

Children discover the world around them as they play, learn, interact with others, and explore their surroundings. Taking risks, being curious, and making guesses is a necessary part of development for school-age children. As a staff member, you want to encourage these behaviors by creating a learning environment that provides opportunities for discovery. Discoveries can happen throughout the learning environment. It is difficult to plan for discovery, because you cannot predict what children will think of. You can help enhance and encourage discovery by providing thought-provoking materials and planning activities that encourage creative thinking, brainstorming, and making hypotheses.

The types of activities that can be associated with discoveries are endless. In the Apply activity for this lesson, you will be asked to do a discovery inventory. You will be looking for materials in the learning environment, both indoors and outdoors, that can spark inquiry and discovery. A few examples of those types of materials are:

  • Non-fiction books
  • Paint
  • Science kits and experiments
  • Sensory items
  • Magnifying glasses and telescopes
  • Specimen and insect containers
  • Pets and other animals
  • Magnets
  • Cooking experiences
  • Natural elements like leaves, insects, dirt, clay, water, sand, shells, rocks, etc.

Encouraging discovery in the learning environment supports development and creativity. Don't forget to ask children what they are interested in. This might help you think of items and materials to include in the environment to spark discovery.

Materials that Promote Creativity

Creativity gives children a chance to think of the world not just as it is, but as it could be. When your program provides children with interesting spaces and materials, you give them the tools to create and to understand the world around them. You might think an empty cardboard box is ready for the recycling bin, but to a child that box can become a house, a submarine, a spaceship, or any number of fascinating places.

Think about the spaces and materials that inspire you in your own creativity. Perhaps you enjoy looking at websites like Pinterest and imagining ways to create new things, design your home, or organize your life. Perhaps walking through the craft store makes you excited about creating homemade greeting cards. Perhaps the home improvement store makes you envision all the renovations or woodworking projects you could do. Part of what makes these experiences inspiring is the variety, novelty, and beauty of the materials. You have choices, and your mind begins to play with all the options available to you. When spaces and materials are organized well, they inspire without overwhelming. Children are similarly inspired. Spend time thinking about the materials you choose.

Variety of materials

To spark creativity, children need a variety of interesting materials. Inexpensive, everyday objects or loose parts can inspire creativity: buttons, thread spools, pinecones, PVC tubes, wood blocks, fabric samples. Some of these materials you may already have. Families may also be willing to donate simple recyclables like milk caps, laundry detergent lids, paper towel tubes, or empty boxes. In a child’s eyes, a box of milk caps can transform into a spaceship, jewelry, or a whole new world of their own creation. Materials and tools for art expression can include an assortment of crayons, play dough, yarn, markers, paintbrushes, scissors, glue, colored pencils, pens, and paper in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors. You can also include simple machines such as paper punches, staplers, pencil sharpeners, and tape dispensers for older children. It is essential that children can choose from a variety of materials to learn what media work best to express their ideas.

Novelty of materials

Remember the old saying, “Variety is the spice of life.” Something new promotes interesting questions. Consider using new materials that children have not used before. Perhaps you have an old overhead projector or a record player. Let children imagine what the items are and what they are used for. Encourage families to lend interesting items from their homes or workplaces, such as snorkeling flippers or a unique tool from the kitchen. These items can all be sources of wonder for children. Look at your world through a child’s eyes. At the most basic level, novelty of materials also means rotating and introducing new materials regularly. This can mean different colors of paint, adding something textural to paint to change its properties, and more. It can also mean bringing in interesting scrap paper, magazine clippings, or found materials. Materials should be familiar yet challenging and should present increasing challenges as children grow and develop.

Beauty of materials

Beauty can be inspiring (DeViney & Duncan, 2010). This is true for adults and children. In your daily work in a school-age program, you should try to create peaceful, home-like spaces, and then help children express their creativity within these spaces. Try framing children’s artwork in an attractive way. Also consider the joy children find by exploring the interactions between objects like prisms, mirrors, color paddles, and natural materials.

Cultural relevance of materials

You should also consider the cultural relevance and cultural responsiveness of creative experiences. Let us take a moment to think about the phrase “culturally responsive creative materials.” What does that mean? Culturally responsive materials are those that help children see themselves and their families, and appeal to all learners from all cultures. Children should be able to see themselves, their families, their homes, and their communities reflected in some materials each day. This does not mean that you must fill your school-age program spaces with representative items from every culture. What it does mean is that you should intentionally provide materials that authentically represent the children and community you serve. It is also appropriate to bring other cultures into your space to promote diverse thinking and skills. One way to do so is to include a wide variety of open-ended materials. Open-ended materials are objects that can be used in a variety of ways: beads, strings, wires, tissue paper, feathers, fabric samples, tiles, etc. These open-ended materials might be items that come from children’s homes that can be recycled in creative ways, like detergent caps becoming building materials, lids or tabs becoming accessories for jewelry, and blankets becoming a fort or tent. You should also be on the lookout for creative cultural experiences: perhaps a parent plays the sitar and offers to give a demonstration, a family weaves and will teach the group a simple project, or a family leads a cooking demonstration.

Meeting the Needs of All Learners

All children are creative. Your program must provide opportunities for all children to express themselves and to have interesting and creative experiences. Some children with disabilities might be overwhelmed by open-ended experiences. It is OK to provide some structure. You can help by providing directions or step-by-step instructions whenever possible.

Sometimes a child will need accommodations to help him or her interact with materials and environments. Consider these examples from Cara’s Kit (Milbourne & Campbell, 2009):

  • For children who have a hard time drawing or painting, consider taping paper to the table so they do not have to hold paper still.
  • Tape foam around the handles of paintbrushes or markers so they are easier to grasp.
  • Provide experiences on a variety of surfaces: the floor, a vertical easel or wall, a low table, etc. You can even tape large paper to the underside of a table and let children lie on their backs and paint overhead.
  • Add bright or textural materials like Mylar to art materials. For some children with visual or hearing disabilities, materials that crinkle or have bright colors can increase their interest.
  • Pair children up with a partner for creative experiences. They can adapt to one another's skill level or interests and try something new.

Engaging Families in Children’s Creativity

There are a variety of ways you can engage family members in a child’s creative process. This is an important part of your role as a school-age staff member because you can encourage children and their families to reflect on creativity. You can also provide opportunities for families to be creative together. Here are some methods of engaging families in the creative process:

  • Display artwork and projects for families to see on a regular basis.
  • Have special exhibits of artwork, long-term projects, writing pieces, or building projects.
  • Plan talent shows and invite the families to attend.
  • Create projects that the family can work on together and bring in to share. Examples of projects could be “all about my family” books or posters, scrapbooks, or collaborative Lego projects or paintings.
  • Encourage children and their families to share some creative aspects of their culture such as dances, music, food, or traditional clothing.
  • Talk with family members to find out what kind of creative talents they might be able to demonstrate and share with the children.

Displaying Art Work

Displaying art is a way to allow children to share their creative work. There are many benefits to displaying art work 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 challenges children to do their best.

There are many ways you can 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.

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.


Drama & Discovery

This video describes examples of incorporating drama and discovery into the school-age learning environment.

Drama & Discovery: Self Expression

This video discusses how drama and discovery help foster healthy self-expression and individuality in school-age children.


As a school-age provider, consider the following when thinking about ways to spark creativity:

  • Encourage drama and discovery in the school-age learning environment by planning a variety of activities that incorporate different types of materials. Be flexible. You will not be able to predict how children will react to these types of experiences or materials.
  • Encourage healthy forms of self-expression by providing materials for children to communicate through the creative arts.
  • Create a learning environment that supports self-expression by demonstrating acceptance and kindness. Embrace all children and their unique, budding personalities. Spend time talking with children, listen to what they have to say, observe the ways they communicate through the arts, and encourage them.


Dramatic play for school-age children comes in many forms. Take time to observe the children in your program engaging in dramatic experiences and use the Dramatic Play Observation form to record what you see. When you are finished, share your work with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Discovery can take place throughout the entire learning environment and can include just about anything! Complete the Discovery Inventory activity. When you are finished, share your work with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Creating a character in detail (personality, appearance, etc.) for a play or written work
Dancing, singing, telling jokes or any type of performing without a plan, script, or written music
Performing through gestures, using no words


A parent asks why you are including the dramatic arts in your activity plans. Now that their child is 9, they no longer play house or doctor. What do you say?
True or False? Charades, storytelling, writing plays, and creating costumes are all examples of dramatic art activities.
Finish this statement: When planning drama and discovery activities for school-age children, it is important to. . .
References & Resources

Cornett, C. E. (2011). Creating meaning through literature and the arts. Pearson.

DeViney, J., & Duncan, S. (2010). Inspiring spaces for young children. Gryphon House.

Edmiston, B. (2013). Transforming teaching and learning with active and dramatic approaches: Engaging students across the curriculum (1st ed.). Routledge.

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

Hetland, L., Palmer, P., Seidel, S. Tishman, S., Winner, E. (2009). The qualities of quality: Understanding excellence in arts education. Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Lobman, C., Clark, K., & Ryan, S. (2015). Preschool through primary grades: From the dress-up corner to the stage: Dramatic activities for early childhood classrooms. Young Children, 70(2), 92-99. Retrieved from

Milbourne, S. A., & Campbell, P. (2009). CARA’s kit: Creating adaptations for routines and activities. Division for Early Childhood.

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.