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The Environment: Materials

An effective learning environment requires both thoughtful design and developmentally appropriate materials. Whether they are in a full-day summer program or a before- and after-school program, school-age children need materials and an environment conducive to help them learn, engage, and have fun. This lesson will help you ensure that a variety of developmentally appropriate materials are available. You will read about how to choose materials based on cultural relevance and anti-bias, children’s interests, and learning goals.

  • 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 school-age program 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 in your school-age program are old and you have the opportunity to choose replacements. Regardless of your situation, how do you decide what toys and materials are worth including in your school-age program? When choosing materials, look for items for school-age children that are:

  • Culturally relevant and anti-biased
  • Developmentally appropriate
  • Linked to children’s interests
  • Linked to learning goals

Culturally Relevant and Anti-Biased

Classroom materials should be culturally relevant and anti-biased. But what exactly does this mean? Cultural relevance means that your choice of materials reflects the backgrounds, community, knowledge, and experiences of all the children in your classroom. An anti-biased approach means that you support and embrace the differences within each individual that may be presented. By choosing materials that validate and empower children of all racial, ethnic, and social backgrounds, you will build a bridge between children’s homes and school lives that will provide a strong foundation for learning. Including artifacts and natural objects from the local community or neighborhood in your learning environment offers opportunities for children to experience and understand their immediate world. Children should be exposed to items that are beautiful, ignite curiosity and engagement, and invite connections to their cultural identities. This includes making sure there are materials that send positive, inclusive messages about individuals with special needs. 

There are many simple ways to expose children and youth to positive images of people from a variety of backgrounds:

  • Include clothes for men and women in the dramatic play area.
  • 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.
  • Add figurines or dolls that represent a range of ages, races, and abilities to the block or dramatic play 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, varied family types, and linguistic diversity.
  • Look for games and toys that allow children to work together, take turns, and celebrate each other’s successes.

Cultural magazines are displayed


Remember to engage families in making your classroom a culturally appropriate space. You can display pictures of families or engage children in experiences that involve their families (e.g., creating a program cookbook where families can share their favorite recipes). 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. This picture shows some traditional Korean clothing that a family brought into share with the rest of the center.

Cultural dresses are displayed


Developmentally Appropriate

Toys and materials in your program should also be developmentally appropriate. This means that they should match the stage of development and ability of the children and youth in your care. Because children develop at different rates, choosing developmentally appropriate materials means that you should have a range of toys available that can accommodate differences between individual children’s skills, thinking, interests, and characteristics. A program stocked with developmentally appropriate materials “fits” the child—the child should not have to adjust to “fit” the classroom!

Remember that program furniture should be size appropriate for all school-age children. This will require multi-age spaces to have a variety of sizes of chairs on hand, as well as step stools for sinks, counters, etc.

Between the ages of 5 and 12 years, children’s brains and bodies continue to develop. You will learn more about this in the Cognitive Development and Physical Development courses. Developmentally appropriate toys and materials allow school-age children to experiment and solve problems. They can encourage children and youth to play with others, take turns, and share. School-age children also need toys and materials that let them move their bodies and promote physical development.

Here are some examples of materials to include in your learning environment that are both developmentally appropriate and attractive to school-age children:


Indoor Activity Area or Conceptual Idea


Writing area:

Younger school-age children may enjoy a traditional writing center. They may enjoy practicing their writing skills and spelling words. Older school-age children will also enjoy writing, but possibly not at a traditional writing center. Include journals and memoirs of well-known people to offer inspiration. Do not rule out the typed word. Some school-age children may gravitate toward a computer, laptop, or tablet to do their writing. This is an important skill and should be welcomed in a learning environment.

  • different kinds of paper (e.g., lined, unlined, sticky notes, construction)
  • journals
  • pens
  • pencils
  • spelling exercises
  • dictionaries
  • envelopes
  • stickers
  • stencils
  • blank books
  • poetry exercises
  • lists of sight words and different ways to practice (e.g., finger writing in glitter)

Arts and music area:

Many school-age children love to perform. Encourage dramatic play by providing the space and materials for acting (perhaps in a dramatic play space or the music and movement spaces discussed in Lesson One). You could offer scripts, such as readers' theatre, or have children write their own. You can also work together to create a set for the performance. It is important to have creative materials that are always available to school-age children. Items such as crayons, paper, markers, glue, and scissors should always be accessible. This allows children to be creative at any time.

  • arts and crafts materials
  • fabrics
  • scrapbooking materials
  • recycled materials
  • puppets
  • costumes
  • plays for readers’ theater
  • musical instruments
  • different musical CDs

Literacy area (library):

Reading should play a large role in a school-age learning environment. Be sure that your program’s library is stocked with books appropriate for all age levels and reading abilities present in your program. Books should also be representative of children’s interests, different cultures, and various abilities.

  • books
  • magazines
  • newspapers
  • e-readers
  • whisper phones
  • tape recorders
  • storyboards
  • story props

Science and discovery area:

School-age children will love making hypotheses and doing experiments . Providing them with lab instructions and an area to work in will be a great addition to your environment. Remember to bring the outside in by having a rotating collection of natural materials to examine (e.g., soil, leaves, roots, fruit, and fossils).

  • microscopes
  • experiments
  • natural elements for discovery
  • magnifying lenses
  • plants
  • pets
  • magnets
  • measuring devices (e.g., scale, balance, measuring tapes, rulers)
  • things with which to construct simple machines

Math ideas:

Math materials will probably be scattered throughout your environment in games, puzzles, and other activities. Some school-age children may enjoy doing actual math work with workbooks, pencils, and calculators, so be sure to always have those on hand! You may also want to try a problem-of-the-day activity by displaying different math problems each day, accommodating different age levels.

  • puzzles
  • blocks
  • pattern blocks or games
  • flashcards
  • manipulatives that facilitate counting and understanding of addition and subtraction
  • calculators
  • workbooks
  • card
  • dice
  • dominoes

Technology area:

Technology is a very important aspect of modern education. School-age children are using technology on a regular basis in their schools, so it is a good idea for that to carry over into their summer or after-school programs. Children can make their own digital movies or presentations about what they are learning or interested in.

  • computers
  • tablets
  • e-readers
  • video games
  • age-appropriate software or websites
  • building materials
  • Lego bricks
  • digital cameras
  • video recorders

Toys and games area:

Play is still a very important part of the day for school-age children. Toys and games should be made available at all times during their day. There should be a variety of group games as well as items that can be used individually. Items like dolls, action figures, animal figures, and other dramatic play toys should also be made available, especially to younger school-age children.

  • puzzles
  • board games
  • card games
  • group games
  • building and construction materials
  • electronic games
  • toy figures


As part of selecting developmentally appropriate materials, you also want to ensure that the developmental needs of all learners are considered. Some children and youth with social, emotional, or attention needs may benefit from fidgets, or small comfort items, that help them release energy. Examples of fidgets include:

  • Pieces of felt
  • Small beanbags
  • 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 some children to focus more easily on the experience at hand. Just make sure children understand what fidgets and comfort items are for and how to appropriately use them.

Linked to Children’s Interests

Children and youth learn best when adults incorporate their interests into activity plans. Whenever possible, adults should provide materials that capture children’s interests and extend their learning. Here are some examples of materials and experiences staff members could offer based on interests from school-age programs.


If some children are interested in the latest character trading cards (e.g., Pokemon cards)

  • Gather resource books about these cards from the library.
  • Provide recycled and craft materials in the art area so children can re-create their favorite characters or develop new ones.
  • Help facilitate the creation of graphs or charts to track children's favorite characters or compare the characters' powers and weaknesses.
  • Offer various ways to classify and sort the cards.
  • Provide blank books and character card provocations or discussions to help children write their own "how to" guides about using the cards or create stories about the characters.
  • Offer cameras and technology to create movies about the characters or "how to" guides.

If a group of children are interested in an upcoming sporting event (e.g., an All-Star hockey game)

  • Gather relevant resources books, this time about the particular sporting event and the sport of interest
  • Offer key vocabulary words relative to the sport in the writing area.
  • Construct a small hockey rink where children can physically test their shooting and blocking moves with safe materials; work with the children to construct a set of rules for your rink.
  • Provide recycled and craft materials to create a model arena or environment for the sport, for older children, add the challenge of constructing it to scale.
  • Use technology to research different players or teams; help children and youth explore the sport in different countries, with a sensitivity to gender and the incorporation of individuals with special needs.
  • Offer opportunities to chart, graph, or compare different things about players or teams.
  • Help children and youth create new board games based on the information found.

If some children and youth are interested in rocks

  • Offer experiences for finding and collecting rocks outdoors.
  • Create a rock station (perhaps in the science and discovery area) where you offer a variety of different rocks, a scale, magnifying lenses, clipboards, paper, and other tools for inspecting the rocks and recording observations.
  • Gather various print materials and resources on rocks.
  • Offer opportunities to research rocks with the use of technology.
  • Offer a world map to help identify where different rocks are more common.
  • In the art area offer pictures of art made from rocks and opportunities to construct creations out of rocks.
  • Provide experiences and pre-made charts or graphs to facilitate classifying, graphing, comparing and contrasting the rocks.
  • Offer rocks of various sizes and weights for comparisons (e.g., to determine how many pebbles equals the weight of a small chunk of granite).

By incorporating children’s interests when choosing classroom materials, you can help children make connections that extend their thinking and learning to new areas. For example, the rock station in your school-age program might spark children’s interest in rock formation, rocks and surfaces on other planets and moons, or an exploration of different jewels. Supporting children’s interest in hockey might spark a discussion of rules and regulations in sports and how these are developed and change over time. As discussed in Lesson Two on indoor environments, provocations are a great way to incorporate children and youth’s interests and help guide their play in productive, engaging ways.

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 these items help children and youth learn?
  • What will they learn when interacting with these items?

Use your knowledge of learning standards and the guidelines outlined by your curriculum to shape your program decisions. Look for materials that promote math skills like sorting, adding, and subtracting; literacy skills like recognition of high-frequency words; social skills like cooperative problem solving; scientific knowledge; and knowledge of the social world. Think about the ways you can engage with each individual to enhance the experience. What ways can the responsive language you use promote the cognitive understanding of the world around them? The developmentally appropriate materials in the chart above, when used in engaging activities, or paired with good provocations or displays, can help children and youth meet various learning goals.

Children play with wood block structures


Remember, the general rule is that children and youth should want to play with the materials you offer. In addition, the materials and experiences available to school-age children should aid their learning and development. See the Explore and Apply sections for further examples of learning goals and materials that help address them.


The next two videos provide examples of developmentally appropriate and culturally relevant materials for school-age children and youth.

Developmentally Appropriate

See examples of developmentally appropriate materials for school-age children.

Cultural Relevance

See examples of culturally relevant materials for school-age children.


To help make the best choices for the children in your classroom, take these steps:

  • Talk to a trainer, coach, or administrator about the materials that are most appropriate for your school-age program.
  • Watch how children and youth play with materials. Introduce new materials when children seem bored or when they need a new challenge. Try offering provocations to help children or youth explore materials in a new or more focused way.
  • Interact with school-age children as they play. Talk about their ideas. Encourage them to take the next step in their thinking.
  • Reflect on the materials in your program. If you notice any biased materials (e.g., books that only show male police officers or soldiers), make a change.
  • Ask families to get involved. Ask them to donate plastic jars, boxes, or other items for your art or construction areas. Invite them to share traditions from their homes or their family’s culture. Make sure that a trainer, coach, or administrator approves material donations for use in the program.
  • Get creative. You do not always have to buy materials for your school-age program. Think about all the toys and materials you can find or make with children (e.g., create your own board games).

Ask yourself the following questions about the materials in your program:

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


This lesson emphasized how activities and materials could be selected based on children’s or youth’s interests and still meet various learning goals (e.g., knowledge about science and math and practice with literacy). In the Creating Developmentally Appropriate Activities activity, use the identified interest to brainstorm activities and select materials. Keep in mind that you will want offer ideas and experiences that would appeal to younger as well as older children in your school-age program. Think about the learning goals that can be achieved with your activity ideas. Share your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator. Then see the suggested responses key.


In this activity, pretend you are setting up a school-age learning environment and choosing all the materials for it. Complete the Developmentally Appropriate Materials: Scenario and Room Diagram activities to create an appropriate learning environment. You can use the example room diagram for this activity or a rough diagram of your own program. When you are finished, share your materials with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Cooperative Games:
Group activities that encourage cooperation and working together as a team and do not have individual winners and losers
Culturally Relevant Materials:
Items that reflect the backgrounds, knowledge, and experiences of all the children in your classroom
Developmentally Appropriate Materials:
Items that fit the stage of development children are in but allow for differences in skills, interests, and characteristics
Small items that help children release energy or emotion in appropriate, nondisruptive ways and aid them in their focus on an experience or challenge instead of on the energy or emotion in their bodies
High-Frequency Words:
Commonly used words that children encounter when reading and can memorize to make reading easier (by removing the effort of sounding out the word and focusing instead on comprehending the text); also called high-frequency sight words
A picture, experience, display, or item that provokes thought, interest, questions, or creativity to inspire or guide children on ways they can engage with materials


True or false? As a school-age staff member, cultural and anti-bias relevance means that you stay current on the latest trends and fashions for school-age children.
Which of the following materials is not both developmentally appropriate and appealing to school-age children?
Finish this statement: Children with special needs…
References & Resources

Abilitations Special Needs. (2020). School speciality.

Ashbrook, P. (n.d.) Toys as tools: Everyday science experiences. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Council on Accreditation. (2019). Standards for child and youth development programs. Out of school time.

Duncan, S., Martin, J. & Kreth, R. (2016). Rethinking the classroom landscape: Creating environments that connect young children, families, and communities. Gryphon House, Inc.

Good toys for young children by age and stage. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Pelo, A. (2008). Rethinking early childhood education. Rethinking Schools.

Schaefer, R. (2016). Teacher inquiry on the influence of materials on children’s learning (Voices). Young Children. 71(5).