Mechanical forces participate in morphogenesis from the level of individual cells to whole organism patterning. This article reviews recent research that has identified specific roles for mechanical forces in important developmental events. One well defined example is that dynein-driven cilia create fluid flow that determines left-right patterning in the early mammalian embryo. Fluid flow is also important for vasculogenesis, and evidence suggests that fluid shear stress rather than fluid transport is primarily required for remodeling the early vasculature. Contraction of the actin cytoskeleton, driven by nonmuscle myosins and regulated by the Rho family GTPases, is a recurring mechanism for controlling morphogenesis throughout development, from gastrulation to cardiogenesis. Finally, novel experimental approaches suggest critical roles for the actin cytoskeleton and the mechanical environment in determining differentiation of mesenchymal stem cells. Insights into the mechanisms linking mechanical forces to cell and tissue differentiation pathways are important for understanding many congenital diseases and for developing regenerative medicine strategies.