During early spinal cord development, neurons of particular subtypes differentiate with a sparse periodic pattern while later neurons differentiate in the intervening space to eventually produce continuous columns of similar neurons. The mechanisms that regulate this spatiotemporal pattern are unknown. In vivo imaging in zebrafish reveals that differentiating spinal neurons transiently extend two long protrusions along the basal surface of the spinal cord before axon initiation. These protrusions express Delta protein, consistent with the hypothesis they influence Notch signaling at a distance of several cell diameters. Experimental reduction of Laminin expression leads to smaller protrusions and shorter distances between differentiating neurons. The experimental data and a theoretical model support the proposal that neuronal differentiation pattern is regulated by transient basal protrusions that deliver temporally controlled lateral inhibition mediated at a distance. This work uncovers a stereotyped protrusive activity of newborn neurons that organize long-distance spatiotemporal patterning of differentiation.