Adaptive phenotypic plasticity, the ability of a genotype to develop a phenotype appropriate to the local environment, allows organisms to cope with environmental variation and has implications for predicting how organisms will respond to rapid, human-induced environmental change. This review focuses on the importance of developmental selection, broadly defined as a developmental process that involves the sampling of a range of phenotypes and feedback from the environment reinforcing high-performing phenotypes. I hypothesize that understanding the degree to which developmental selection underlies plasticity is key to predicting the costs, benefits, and consequences of plasticity. First, I review examples that illustrate that elements of developmental selection are common across the development of many different traits, from physiology and immunity to circulation and behavior. Second, I argue that developmental selection, relative to a fixed strategy or determinate (switch) mechanisms of plasticity, increases the probability that an individual will develop a phenotype best matched to the local environment. However, the exploration and environmental feedback associated with developmental selection is costly in terms of time, energy, and predation risk, resulting in major changes in life history such as increased duration of development and greater investment in individual offspring. Third, I discuss implications of developmental selection as a mechanism of plasticity, from predicting adaptive responses to novel environments to understanding conditions under which genetic assimilation may fuel diversification. Finally, I outline exciting areas of future research, in particular exploring costs of selective processes in the development of traits outside of behavior and modeling developmental selection and evolution in novel environments.