Setting up a Development Environment

Why set up a development environment?

When developing themes, it is best to do it in an environment identical to the production server which will eventually host your WordPress installation.  Your development environment can either be local or remote.  Configuring a local environment to work on your WordPress theme is beneficial for several reasons:

  • You can build your theme locally without relying on a remote server. This speeds up your development process and allows you to see changes instantly in your browser.
  • You do not need an Internet connection to build your theme.
  • You can test your theme from a variety of perspectives. This is important, especially if you plan on releasing your theme to a larger audience and want to ensure maximum compatibility.

Top ↑

Your WordPress local development environment

For developing WordPress themes, you need to set up a development environment suited to WordPress.  To get started, you will need a local server stack and a text editor. There are a number of options, for example MAMP, XAMPP, Varying Vagrant Vagrants (VVV) or Docker. For more information see Installing a local server.

Text Editor

In addition to a local server environment, you also need a text editor to write your code. Your choice of text editor is personal, but remember that a good text editor can speed up your development process. Your text editor can be everything from a basic tool for writing code to a fully integrated development environment (IDE) with tools for debugging and testing. It’s worth doing research, and some even include support for WordPress development. Popular choices are Atom, Sublime Text, VSCode and PhpStorm.

Top ↑

Supporting older versions of WordPress

It’s standard practice for WordPress themes to support at least two versions back to ensure a minimum of backward compatibility. For example, if the current version of WordPress is at 5.8, then you should also make sure that your theme works well in versions 5.7 and 5.6 as well.

You can refer to the WordPress Releases page to access older versions of WordPress. Then you can download and install older WordPress versions, creating multiple development sites, each running different WordPress versions for testing.

Top ↑


Configuring debugging is an essential part of WordPress theme development. WordPress provides a number of constants to support your debugging efforts. These includes:


The WP_DEBUG PHP constant is used to trigger the built-in “debug” mode on your WordPress installation. This allows you to view errors in your theme. To enable it:

1. Open your WordPress installation’s wp-config.php file

2. Change:

define( 'WP_DEBUG', false );


define( 'WP_DISABLE_FATAL_ERROR_HANDLER', true ); // 5.2 and later
define( 'WP_DEBUG', true );
Note: While normally set to ‘false’ in the wp-config.php file, development copies of WordPress—alpha and beta versions of the upcoming release—WP_DEBUG is already set to ‘true’ by default.


WP_DEBUG_LOG and WP_DEBUG_DISPLAY are additional PHP constants which extend WP_DEBUG.

WP_DEBUG_LOG is used in conjunction with WP_DEBUG to log all error messages to a debug.log within your WordPress /wp-content/ directory. To enable this functionality set WP_DEBUG_LOG to true within your wp-config.php file.

define( 'WP_DEBUG_LOG', true );

WP_DEBUG_DISPLAY is used to control whether debug messages display within the HTML of your theme pages. To display error messages on the screen as they occur, configure this setting to ‘true’ within your wp-config.php file.

define( 'WP_DEBUG_DISPLAY', true );

With the WP_DEBUG and WP_DEBUG_DISPLAY enabled, error messages will display at the top of your site pages.


Note: Errors will display in the frontend and admin areas of your site. These debug tools are meant for local testing and staging installs, not for live sites.

Top ↑

Other WordPress Development Tools

In addition to WP_DEBUG, the following plugins and unit test data sets are an important part of your development toolset and help you develop better WordPress themes.

Top ↑

Test Data Theme Test Data Theme Test Data is an XML file containing dummy test data that you can upload to test how themes perform with different types and layouts of content. Theme Unit Test Data Theme Unit Test Data is dummy test data that you can upload to a WordPress installation to test your theme, including features.

Top ↑


Debug Bar (WordPress plugin)

Debug Bar adds an admin bar to your WordPress admin providing a central location for debugging.

Query Monitor (WordPress plugin)

Query Monitor allows debugging of database queries, API request and AJAX called used to generate theme pages and theme functionality.

Log Deprecated Notices (WordPress plugin)

Log Deprecated Notices logs incorrect function usage and the use of deprecated files and functions in your WordPress theme.

Monster Widgets (WordPress plugin)

Monster Widget consolidates the core WordPress widgets into a single widget allowing you to test widgets styling and functionality in your theme.

Theme-Check (WordPress plugin)

Theme-Check tests your theme for compliance with the latest WordPress standards and practices.

Top ↑

WordPress Theme Review Guidelines

In addition to the above development tools, it’s a good idea to stay up to date on the Themes Team’s guidelines for theme submission and guidance on meeting WordPress Coding Standards. These guidelines are the “gold standard” for quality theme development and are useful, even if you don’t plan on releasing a theme on