At the earliest developmental stages, sensory neocortical areas in various species reveal distinct patterns of spontaneous neuronal network activity. These activity patterns either propagate over large neocortical areas or synchronize local neuronal ensembles. In vitro and in vivo experiments indicate that these spontaneous activity patterns are generated from neuronal networks in the cerebral cortex, in subcortical structures or in the sensory periphery (retina, cochlea, whiskers). At early stages spontaneous periphery-driven and also sensory evoked activity is relayed to the developing cerebral cortex via the thalamus and the neocortical subplate, which amplifies the afferent sensory input. These early local and large-scale neuronal activity patterns influence a variety of developmental processes during corticogenesis, such as neurogenesis, apoptosis, neuronal migration, differentiation and network formation. The experimental data also indicate that disturbances in early neuronal patterns may have an impact on the development of cortical layers, columns and networks. In this article we review our current knowledge on the origin of early electrical activity patterns in neocortical sensory areas and their functional implications on shaping developing cortical networks.