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Cultivating Creativity and Innovation: Environments and Materials

Spaces and materials are powerful drivers of creativity. Children and adults benefit from spaces that are well organized with a variety of materials intentionally selected to promote creativity. This lesson will provide an overview of creative materials and spaces. You will learn about ways to work with staff members to design spaces that build creativity.

  • Define the kinds of materials that spark creativity.
  • Describe ways to help staff members promote creativity indoors and outdoors.
  • Describe ways to engage families in creative experiences.
  • Observe and provide feedback to staff members on creative environments and materials.



"Without this playing with fantasy, no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable." - Carl Jung

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 are giving 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. You should help staff members consider the materials they choose.

Variety of materials

To spark creativity, children need a variety of interesting materials. Inexpensive, everyday objects can inspire creativity: buttons, thread spools, pinecones, PVC tubes, wood blocks, fabric samples. Work with staff members to think creatively about materials they 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. Include paper punches, staplers and tape dispensers for older children. It is essential that children are able to 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 helping staff members discover 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 papers, magazine clippings, or found materials. Materials should be familiar yet challenging; they 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. Help staff members create peaceful, home-like spaces, then encourage them to help children express their creativity within the spaces. Try framing children’s artwork in an attractive way, for example you might create a gallery of creations in a school-age program or preschool. Also help staff members consider the joy children find by exploring the interactions between objects like prisms, mirrors, color paddles, and natural materials.

Cultural relevance of materials

You must also help staff members 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. 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 some materials each day. This does not mean that staff members must fill their classrooms with representative items from every culture. What it does mean is that staff members should provide 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, 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. Staff members 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.

Helping Staff Provide Indoor and Outdoor Environments that Promote Creativity

The physical and social environments staff members create play a large role in creativity. These settings guide the kinds of new ideas that emerge from children. The space under a large outdoor play structure, for example, may become a cave, dungeon or café. It is important to help adults see their environments as spaces in which numbers, letters, art, peers, snacks, and music can all be integrated into balanced learning experiences (Bently, 2013).

Consider the spaces in the videos below. How do they help promote creativity?

Creativity Outdoors

Outdoor environments play a large role in promoting creativity.

Creativity Indoors

Indoor environments play a large role in promoting creativity.

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 staff 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 shelving or tables to display three-dimensional items, such as sculptures or pottery.

When displaying work, remind staff to give children the chance to create a nameplate with their name and the title of their piece. This will show that they value their work and allow them to feel proud of their creative accomplishment.

Engaging Families

You can also provide spaces and materials that encourage families to be creative. Cultivating creativity in your program helps model ways families can structure their time, interactions, and spaces.

Help families think about:

  1. All the different ways to answer questions or approach tasks; there are often few right or wrong answers or approaches.
  2. How to ask questions that spark creative thinking (“How does that work?” “Why?”).
  3. Making room for spontaneous events and changed plans; jumping in puddles or looking at rainbows can spark creative thinking.
  4. Being curious. Encourage families to ask questions of you, your program, and your community. Model “I wonder…” statements: “I wonder how that works,” “I wonder why that is the way it is”.
  5. How to see creativity in everyone. Help family members see themselves as creative beings: they solve problems, they look for ideas. Give opportunities to learn new things and try new skills. (Beghetto & Kaufman, 2010).

You can work with your management team to plan activities that promote creativity for families. For example, your program could plan a gallery walk to display the children’s artwork in the program spaces. During the event, you could have art experiences for families and siblings to participate in. Perhaps you could invite a local jazz band or a local college musical group to perform for your families; invite families to come dance together. You can also work with classroom or program teams to think about ways they can share ideas with families. Newsletters are great ways to offer a few tips in a “Creativity Corner.” Also, encourage families to make the most of your program’s open-door policy. Make sure they feel welcome to join their child in creative activities in the classroom or program. See the Families course for more ideas about how to engage families in your programs.

Meeting the Needs of ALL Learners

All children are creative. Your programs must provide opportunities for children to express themselves and to interact with interesting, creative experiences. Some children with disabilities might be overwhelmed by open-ended experiences. It is OK to provide some structure. You can help staff members simplify the directions or draw pictures to help these children understand what to do.

Sometimes, children will need accommodations to help them interact with materials and environments. Consider these examples from Cara’s Kit (Campbell, Kennedy, & Milbourne, 2012; Milbourne & Campbell, 2009):

  • If a child has a hard time drawing or painting, consider taping the paper to the table so they do not have to hold it 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 lay 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.


Seeking Out Innovative Materials and Resources

You can model creativity for staff members by helping them find new uses for materials. Take the lead on checking with a local recycling center; many offer programs that provide interesting recycled materials for educators and child-care programs. You might also have interesting materials in your program, community or installation. Packaging materials, boxes, crates, carpet tubes, carpet samples, fabric swatches, picture frames and many other materials can all be repurposed into interesting materials for children and youth. If an office or business has recently moved, perhaps they will donate old letterhead as scrap paper. Check with university or business surplus offices. You never know when you might come across a functional overhead projector, typewriter, tape recorder, easel, podium, or other piece of equipment that can become a medium for creativity. Of course, always be sure to check materials for safety before use. Depending on your location, you might also find resources from a local children’s museum, science museum, or art museum. Many offer on-site educational experiences for children or staff.

Making the Most of Space

Help staff members understand that creativity happens everywhere; they don’t need a special space or time for creativity to occur. They don’t need to wait for a visit from a guest artist or for time in a fully equipped art studio. The most meaningful and creative experiences happen wherever children are engaging with interesting spaces and materials. Help staff create fluid spaces, so they can shift or reinvent according to the needs of the children (Bentley, 2013). For example, if many children are interested in building structures with new modeling materials a staff member has provided, help the staff member adjust the space so there is more room for creation. Some spaces might serve multiple functions. Help staff brainstorm how a space for large-group activities can also be used for other creative purposes. See the Learning Environments course for more information about arranging the environment.

Also help staff members understand the importance of display. Materials should be displayed attractively and at children’s eye level. Walk around the room or program spaces and make sure that staff display:

Children's artwork and creations.

These materials should be displayed attractively. Consider helping staff find or create simple frames to showcase work. Also remember to look for three-dimensional creations like sculptures, machines and structures. Artwork should be displayed attractively at the children’s eye level, so children can enjoy the beauty and access the materials.

Culturally representative materials.

Artwork from a variety of cultures can inspire creativity. Help staff locate materials to display that connect with the children, families or content of their programs.


Now, you will have the opportunity to view creative environments and materials across infant, toddler, preschool, and school-age settings. As you watch, think about how you would provide feedback to each staff member or team about the ways their environments and materials promote creativity.

First, watch a video that you might remember from the Learning Environments course. Then think about how you might talk to the staff member about their work in terms of creativity.

A Range of Creative Materials

Staff can help children use materials creatively.

Promoting Creative Expression



Clip 1: Rainbow Fish

Two children are working at a small table on a Rainbow Fish activity. An adult is with the children. The adult completes each step of the activity for the children. There is little the children can do independently, and each product turns out roughly the same.

You Say

Say to the Adult:

  • “Can you tell me about your goals for this experience? How did the materials help you achieve them?”
  • “I noticed that you were really busy during the Rainbow Fish art today. Can you tell me more about your plans for that activity?”
  • “It’s so important that children have opportunities for expression. Let’s brainstorm together about ways we could help children be even more creative during your literacy art activity.”

You Do

Provide Options

  • Provide alternative materials the staff can use to promote creativity. For example, perhaps the gel could be pre-filled into bowls and the children could scoop their own gel into baggies rather than squeezing. The children could decide how much gel to use, etc.
  • Work with staff to provide a wider array of materials the children could use to create fish. Perhaps children could use buttons, plastic objects, or other materials to make their own fish.


Clip 2: Color-Blending Activities

A large group of children and a staff member are outdoors on a stage. The children have access to plastic bags, a variety of paint colors, and adult assistance as needed. Children squeeze paints into their own bags, and take the lead in experimenting with color blending.

You Say

Say to the Staff:

  • “I noticed the youth were very engaged in the color-blending activity. Can you tell me more about how you planned it and helped the youth be independent and creative?”
  • “How do you think the materials promoted creativity during the activity?”

You Do

Help Staff:

  • Continue encouraging the use of open-ended materials that promote choice and engagement.
  • Help the team brainstorm additional ways they could promote creativity and expand on this activity: murals, movement activities, etc.

Now let’s look at a contrasting example. In the next video, you will see two different classrooms with art activities that are relatively product-oriented. There is an end product in mind. As you watch, though, compare how the materials and environments facilitate different levels of creativity in each clip.

Creative Contrasts: Product-Oriented Materials

Similar materials can have different effects on creativity.

Promoting Creative Expression



Clip 1: Butterflies

Toddlers and staff members are sitting around a table. There are precut butterfly shapes and precut spots to glue on the butterflies. Staff members put glue on the butterflies and help children place the spots.

You Say

Say to Felicia:

  • “It’s so important that young toddlers see themselves and their world in the materials in your room. How do you think you could help make butterflies real to them?”
  • “Tell me about the butterfly art. How did it go? How did the kids do? What are you planning next? Do you have ideas for activities that will let them go a step further in creativity?”

You Do

Brainstorm solutions

  • Set up a time for the staff members to visit a classroom that uses more open-ended materials.
  • Share video examples of creative experiences for infants and toddlers.
  • Help staff do a materials inventory in their classroom and brainstorm unique ways they could use materials with children.


Clip 2: Matisse

A staff member introduces the concept of “painting with scissors” and shows a model. Children choose materials and use precut scrap papers to create their own products.

You Say

Say to Hendricks:

  • “I noticed that each child’s creation was different, and the adults encouraged creativity throughout.”
  • “The materials were prepared and helped children feel ready to be successful as creative artists”

You Do


  • Invite the teacher to share the project during a staff meeting, or encourage her to invite other staff members to observe the art process.
  • Plan a gallery walk to show off the children’s art in the program. Encourage other staff members to do creative projects to showcase.

Finally, let’s watch a few clips from school-age programs. Note how open-ended materials make a difference in children’s engagement and learning. Also notice how adult facilitation helps children experience success during a creative time.

Creative Contrasts: Open- and Closed-Ended Materials

Materials matter in creativity.

Promoting Creative Expression



Clip 1: Shakers

All school-age children are sitting around tables. There are a variety of materials in the center of each table. They are trying to assemble identical shakers. At least one girl calls for help and appears frustrated.

You Say

Say to the Staff:

  • “What do you think would be the ideal staff-to-child ratio to really help the children be creative?”
  • “How do you think the materials helped or hurt creativity?”
  • “What went well with this project? What would you change next time?”

You Do

Brainstorm and Follow-up

  • Brainstorm staffing and zoning patterns with staff, so children can work in small groups rather than one large group.
  • Review activity plans to ensure a variety of materials and adequate staff support.


Clip 2: Robots

A small group of school-age children are sitting around a table. There are a variety of materials in the center of each table. Each child is creating something different. A staff member moves around and asks children what materials they need.

You Say

Say to the Staff:

  • “How do you think the materials helped the children feel creative and create products they were proud of?”
  • “How did you help facilitate creativity?”
  • “You promoted creativity in a positive way when you asked, ‘What do you need?’”

You Do

Brainstorm and Follow-up

  • Continue brainstorming with staff about long-term projects or ways to help the children sustain creative experiences over time with interesting materials.
  • Display the children’s creations in the program.



What kind of spaces and materials inspire creativity for children and youth? Read this article from the Penn State Better Kid Care website about a concept known as “loose parts”. The article is available from this link: Then answer the questions in the Creative Spaces activity.


According to leading play researchers, basic is best when it comes to toys and materials (Trawick-Smith, 2013). Each year, the Toys that Inspire Mindful Play and Nurture Imagination (TIMPANI) toy study examines how young children engage with toys. The researchers work to identify toys that “best engage children in intellectual, creative, and social interactions in preschool classrooms.” Each year, researchers identify a toy that scores highly with young children. The Creative Materials List contains a few of the identified toys and a list of other materials that spark creativity across the age span. Review the list and share with colleagues as you see fit.


Your program is on a tight budget. A preschool staff member comes to you with an order for a large assortment of creative materials from an early education company. What do you say to her?
Which of the following is an example of culturally responsive creative materials?
True or False? Children with special needs may need structure or accommodations when participating in open-ended creative activities.
References & Resources

Althouse, R., Johnson, M. H., & Mitchell, S. T. (2002). The Colors of Learning: Integrating the visual arts into the early childhood curriculum. Vol. 85 of Early Childhood Education series. New York: Teachers College Press.

Beghetto, R. A., & Kaufman, J. C. (Eds.). (2010). Nurturing Creativity in the Classroom. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bentley, D. F. (2013). Everyday Artists: Inquiry and Creativity in the Early Childhood Classroom. Teachers College Press.

Campbell, P. H., Kennedy, A. A., & Milbourne, S. A. (2012). CARA’s Kit for Toddlers. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

Cropley, A. J. (2001). Creativity in Education and Learning: A guide for teachers and educators. New York: Psychology Press.

DeViney, J., & Duncan, S. (2010). Inspiring Spaces for Young Children. Lewisville, NC: Gryphon House.

Malaguzzi, L. (1987). The Hundred Languages of Children (I cento linguaggi dei bambini), exhibition catalogue.) (16-21).

Milbourne, S. A., & Campbell, P. (2009). CARA’s Kit: Creating Adaptations for Routines and Activities. Missoula, MT: Division for Early Childhood.