Manipulatives: Big learning from little objects
Jason stands at the manipulatives table stringing wooden
beads. After a minute, he compares the string to the pattern card.
He frowns. Something is not quite right. He holds the string against the card
and compares the beads, one to one.
“Ah,” he says. He reaches into the bead tub for two triangle beads.
He removes the round beads he has strung before and re-strings the beads, this
time putting the triangle beads in the place of two round ones.
“Look, I did it,” he says to Carmen, who’s working a puzzle.
“I like the yellow and green ones better,” she says.
Jason flips through the pattern cards and finds one with yellow and green beads. “I
can do this one too,” he says, and starts a new string.
• • • • •
At first glance, activities such as stringing beads and putting together puzzles
would seem to be about improving muscle control in the hands and developing
eye-hand coordination. Certainly these are important skills for preschool children.
Such skills form the foundation for later hand skills, such as writing, drawing,
using a computer keyboard, and playing a musical instrument.
But manipulative activities do much more. Understanding the form and function
of manipulatives can help caregivers and teachers strengthen all areas of children’s
What are manipulative materials?
According to the ERIC thesaurus, these are “instructional materials that
are designed to be touched or handled by students and which develop their muscles,
perceptual skills, psychomotor skills, etc.” Another commonly used term
for these materials is “table games.”
Children manipulate objects in all areas of the classroom—as they play
with blocks, sand and water, art materials, science and discovery items, musical
instruments, and dramatic play props. Children also manipulate objects outdoors
using gardening tools, woodworking and construction supplies, balls and nets,
and push-pull toys, for example.
But preschool children need a separate learning area devoted to manipulative
materials. Why? Perhaps the most important reason is the critical role of the
hands in learning.
A deep learning pathway
Neurologist Frank Wilson (1998) argues that from the beginning of time, it
was the increasing dexterity of the hands that pushed the expansion of the
human brain and gave rise to gestures and language. Through history, the
hands have continued to play a role in advancements in agriculture, industry,
Beginning with Pestalozzi about 1805, educators realized that children learn
best not through reading and memorizing, but through hands-on activities with
objects. By the turn of the next century, educators urged that science, in
particular, rely heavily on observation of nature and that students as young
as elementary school age do experiments. Today we know that hands-on learning
is more effective than sitting and listening, even for adults.
In short, the hands represent a deep learning pathway. Children today need
greater access to this pathway because of the hours they spend passively watching
television and commuting from home to school.
Multiple learning goals
The manipulatives center offers opportunities for all kinds of learning: physical,
cognitive, and social-emotional. (See box at right.)
A teacher can match the materials to the varied developmental needs and levels
of the children in the group. For a group of 3-year-olds, for example, a teacher
might start the year with puzzles of six to eight pieces. As children master
those puzzles, the teacher can add ones with more pieces to provide a greater
Within a group, a teacher can also match materials to learning goals for specific
children. To help Fiona gain practice in finishing tasks, for example, a teacher
sets out a simple button and zipping frame and gives encouragement as Fiona
Setting up the center
Infant-toddler rooms typically have a carpeted area for exploratory play. This
space is for crawling, climbing, and activities to develop the large muscles.
But it’s also an informal area for manipulatives—rattles, stacking
and nesting toys, butter tubs, and other simple materials that children can
touch, grasp, and release.
By age 2, children are ready for a designated manipulative play area. Locate
it in a quiet part of the room with little noise and traffic, perhaps next
to the library center. Or set it up between the library center and a more active
one, such as blocks.
Make sure there’s plenty of light so children can see what they’re
doing. “Natural light from a window is best,” says Pam Briggs,
child development instructor at McLennan Community College in Waco.
Furnish the center with one or two child-sized tables, chairs, and storage
shelves. Allow room for children to spread out materials on the table or the
Use baskets, boxes, cut-down plastic milk jugs, and plastic tubs as containers
for small pieces. Transparent containers allow children to see what’s
Make two sets of labels, one for the container and the other for the shelf.
This way children know to return the red-label materials to the red-label shelf,
for example. Help children develop reading readiness by making labels with
words and symbols or pictures of the objects.
Dawn Leach, director of the Children’s Lab School, Austin Community College,
recommends setting up materials as discrete activities, using trays, placemats,
or carpet squares. For a bead-stringing activity, for example, place the bead
tub, string, and pattern cards on a tray. A child can take the tray off the
shelf, do the activity, and return the tray to the shelf when finished. This
not only helps keeps materials together but also defines a child’s space
at the table, she says.
Types of manipulatives
Manipulatives generally fall into five categories:
blocks and construction toys—interlocking plastic blocks, gears,
small wooden table blocks
materials—sewing cards, dressing frames, stringing beads,
and take-apart materials—puzzles, nesting boxes, and Montessori
items such as the cylinder block, pink tower, and color tablets
and counting items—nuts and bolts, keys, colored cubes, counting
bears, plastic lids
games—lotto, checkers, cards, and board games
Teachers can add manipulative materials from other learning centers, such as
dollhouses and barns with people and animal figures. Briggs suggests setting
out play dough—“but without cookie cutters and tools, so children
can simply poke and squeeze and knead and roll it out.”
Manipulative materials are intended to be handled. This means they are likely
to get dirty and battered, and some pieces will get lost. Provide materials
that are washable and strong enough to stand this kind of treatment. Remove
or replace items before they get ragged. The condition of materials influences
the way children use and care for them.
Don’t use dangerous materials like glass or sharp, pointed objects. Make
sure all materials are nontoxic. Avoid using food items like rice, beans, and
macaroni; they can attract pests and send an inconsistent message about playing
with food. For infants and toddlers, provide items that are too large to be
a choking hazard.
Apart from safety and durability, Leach suggests at least two criteria when
Can it be used in more than one way? Parquetry blocks, for example, can be
used to help children learn geometric shapes and patterns as well as encourage
children to make their own creative designs.
Will it be fairly easy to replace missing pieces? You can buy extra pegs
for the pegboard, for example, and small sets of counters and blocks when some
of the original pieces get taken outside or swept up in the trash.
Guiding children in the center
The manipulatives center “is not as socially challenging as blocks and
dramatic play,” where children must talk and negotiate, says Leach. “It’s
often a place where a child can take a break or work alone for a while.” Completing
a manipulatives activity can help a child gain confidence and feel more comfortable
about entering into play with other children.
Even though manipulatives are meant to be used independently with little direction,
a teacher needs to be nearby. Besides anticipating problem behavior, a teacher
can lend support when Alex cries, “I can’t do this puzzle.” A
teacher can also challenge a child: “Jena, you’ve sorted the keys
into silver and gold. Mix them up and find another way they are alike.”
As in other areas of the classroom, guidance issues can be avoided by the way
the space and materials are organized. See box below.