Stem cells and their local microenvironment, or niche, communicate through mechanical cues to regulate cell fate and cell behaviour and to guide developmental processes. During embryonic development, mechanical forces are involved in patterning and organogenesis. The physical environment of pluripotent stem cells regulates their self-renewal and differentiation. Mechanical and physical cues are also important in adult tissues, where adult stem cells require physical interactions with the extracellular matrix to maintain their potency. In vitro, synthetic models of the stem cell niche can be used to precisely control and manipulate the biophysical and biochemical properties of the stem cell microenvironment and to examine how the mode and magnitude of mechanical cues, such as matrix stiffness or applied forces, direct stem cell differentiation and function. Fundamental insights into the mechanobiology of stem cells also inform the design of artificial niches to support stem cells for regenerative therapies.