The extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) pathway governs cell proliferation, differentiation and migration, and therefore plays key roles in various developmental and regenerative processes. Recent advances in genetically encoded fluorescent biosensors have unveiled hitherto unrecognized ERK activation dynamics in space and time and their functional importance mainly in cultured cells. However, ERK dynamics during embryonic development have still only been visualized in limited numbers of model organisms, and we are far from a sufficient understanding of the roles played by developmental ERK dynamics. In this Review, we first provide an overview of the biosensors used for visualization of ERK activity in live cells. Second, we highlight the applications of the biosensors to developmental studies of model organisms and discuss the current understanding of how ERK dynamics are encoded and decoded for cell fate decision-making.