An essential step for understanding the transcriptional circuits that control development and physiology is the global identification and characterization of regulatory elements. Here we present the first map of regulatory elements across the development and ageing of an animal, identifying 42,245 elements accessible in at least one C. elegans stage. Based on nuclear transcription profiles, we define 15,714 protein-coding promoters and 19,231 putative enhancers, and find that both types of element can drive orientation-independent transcription. Additionally, hundreds of promoters produce transcripts antisense to protein coding genes, suggesting involvement in a widespread regulatory mechanism. We find that the accessibility of most elements is regulated during development and/or ageing and that patterns of accessibility change are linked to specific developmental or physiological processes. The map and characterization of regulatory elements across C. elegans life provides a platform for understanding how transcription controls development and ageing.