Patterned, spontaneous activity occurs in many developing neural circuits, including the retina, the cochlea, the spinal cord, the cerebellum and the hippocampus, where it provides signals that are important for the development of neurons and their connections. Despite there being differences in adult architecture and output across these various circuits, the patterns of spontaneous network activity and the mechanisms that generate it are remarkably similar. The mechanisms can include a depolarizing action of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), transient synaptic connections, extrasynaptic transmission, gap junction coupling and the presence of pacemaker-like neurons. Interestingly, spontaneous activity is robust; if one element of a circuit is disrupted another will generate similar activity. This research suggests that developing neural circuits exhibit transient and tunable features that maintain a source of correlated activity during crucial stages of development.