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Manipulatives: Big learning from little objects
Get parents involved
To help parents understand the importance of manipulatives, set up an activity on a small table in the foyer or hall. When parents drop off or pick up children, invite them to take a minute to watch or do the activity with their child. Explain briefly what children are learning.
“Even though most parents are busy, I’ve found that they will often take the time to learn about the purpose of games,” says Briggs.
Select a few manipulatives that you can package and send home with parents. Use small canvas bags or recycled potato chip cans with lids as containers. Set up a check-out system like a lending library. Parents can do the activity at home with their children and return it after a couple of days.
Encourage parents to turn off the TV and play simple games like checkers or Go Fish. “Board games are a wonderful family activity because they encourage time together and teach rules and turn-taking,” says Leach. Parents can also set out parquetry blocks or tangrams and say: “You make a design and I’ll copy yours.”
Many parents will feel more involved by donating household items and recyclables. Post a list on the bulletin board or include it in the parent newsletter.

Manipulative activities
Try the activities below with your children. Pay close attention to their hands and how the hands enable learning.
For more manipulative activities that help children develop math concepts in particular, see two articles on building numeracy with homemade materials in the Fall and Winter 1999 issues of See also the resources at the end of this article.

Pot scrubbers
(2 years)
Use this activity to provide sensory learning as well as to develop fine-motor skills.
Here’s what you need:
clear plastic container with lid, 4 1/2 by 11 inches
6 new plastic pot scrubbers in varied bright colors

1. Put the scrubbers into the container and screw on the lid.
2. Encourage a child to take the lid off and put it back on, and take out the scrubbers and put them back in.
3. Talk about the texture and name the colors. Use the concepts in and out, off and on.
Variation: Instead of scrubbers, use tennis balls.

Nesting bowls
(2 to 3 years)
This activity will help children refine visual skills and begin problem solving.
Here’s what you need:
a set of four plastic mixing bowls with lids, with diameters ranging from 6 to 10 1/2 inches

1. Allow children to match lids to bowls and practice putting on and taking off the lids.
2. Place the lids on the bowls. Invite a child to stack the bowls, with largest on the bottom and smallest on the top.
3. Take off the lids. Invite a child to fit the bowls inside each other. Do the same with the lids.

Bear in a chair
(3 to 5 years)
This activity can be done by a single child or made into a game for two.
Here’s what you need:
box lid, 11 by 17 inches
24 plastic jug tops from milk or juice, 6 green, 6 yellow, 5 blue, 7 red
24 small counting bears, 6 green, 6 yellow, 5 blue, 7 red

1. Arrange the tops inside the box lid to make four rows of six tops in each row. Colors can be random. Glue the tops, flat side down, to the lid.
2. Invite a child to match the bears to the tops by color.
3. Give half the bears to one child and half to another child. Encourage them to match the bears to the tops.
4. Talk about how one bear goes to one top. As children learn this one-to-one correspondence, begin counting the bears and tops.

Shapes that are alike
(3 to 6 years)
This activity can help children identify geometric shapes and sequence them by size.
Here’s what you need:
felt, all one color or in varied colors
basket or plastic container for storage

1. Cut the felt into four geometric shapes—square, circle, triangle, and rectangle—roughly 2 inches across.
2. Cut out successively larger sizes of each shape. For example, cut circles with diameters of 3, 4, and 5 inches.
3. Name the different shapes and talk with children about them. Ask a child to pick up a shape and name it. Find other pieces the same shape but larger or smaller.
4. Ask a child to pick out all the triangles and arrange them from smallest to largest.

Nut sort
(3 to 6 years)
Fall and winter is a good time for children to collect nuts under trees on your playground or at home. Plan to buy a variety of unshelled nuts at the supermarket. Expect children to crack and eat some.
Here’s what you need:
an assortment of unshelled nuts, such as pecans, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, and Brazil nuts
basket or tub to hold the nuts
small plastic tubs for sorting

1. Invite children to find nuts that are alike and put them into separate tubs.
2. Ask: Why do these nuts go together? Which tub has the most nuts?
3. Mix up the nuts and ask children to find another way they are alike. They might sort by color, size, texture, or worm holes, for example.
Safety note: Avoid peanuts because some children are allergic to them. Peanuts are not true nuts anyway; they’re legumes.

Clothespins and note clips
(3 to 7 years)
Allow children plenty of time to practice squeezing open the clips, attaching them, and removing them.
Here’s what you need:
assortment of 30 or more clothespins, chip clips, and paper clips in different sizes, colors, and materials (metal, wood, plastic)
shelf extender rack, box with lengths of clothesline strung across it, or another structure for attaching clips
tray or basket for storage

1. Invite children to find clips that are alike and clip them together on the rack or clothesline.
2. Ask: Why are these clips together? Which row has the most clips? What is each type used for?
3. Invite children to remove the clips and sort them by another attribute. If they have sorted by color, for example, they might sort by size, material, or another attribute of their own choosing.

Block cube match
(3 to 7 years)
For 3 year-olds, make a set of cards for the numbers 1 through 5. For older children, add cards for the numbers up through 10.
Here’s what you need:
15 1-inch-square blocks of the same color
pencil and markers
clear self-adhesive plastic or laminate
basket or box for storage

1. Measure and cut posterboard into five rectangular cards, 5 inches wide and 11 inches long.
2. On the first card, use the marker to print the word one and the numeral. Draw an outline around one cube.
3. Make similar cards for the numbers 2, 3, 4, and 5, drawing the appropriate number of cube outlines for each.
4. Cover cards on both sides with plastic or laminate.
5. Invite children to choose a card, say the number, and place the appropriate number of cubes in the outlines.

Leaf grid
(3 to 7 years)
Find leaf stickers in nature and craft stores. Choose posterboard in an autumn color.
Here’s what you need:
6 different types of leaf stickers
21 acorns, squirrel figures, or other objects as counters
die with numbers 1 through 6
basket for storage

1. Measure and cut the posterboard to make a 12-inch square.
2. Draw lines from one side to the other to create six rows at 2-inch intervals.
3. Apply stickers to make rows of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 leaves, with a different type leaf in each row.
4. Invite children to take turns rolling the die. The side landing on top indicates the number of counters the child gets. The child places the counters on leaves beginning with the first row. If Alicia rolls four dots, for example, she will place one counter on the first row, two on the second, and one on the third. The next child starts where the previous left off, until all leaves are covered.

Briggs, Pamela S., Theo L. Pilot, and Janet H. Bagby. 2001. Albany, N.Y.: Delmar Thomson Learning.
Charner, Kathy, ed. 2001. Beltsville, Md.: Gryphon House.
Copley, Juanita V. 2000. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Moomaw, Sally, and Brenda Hieronymus. 1995. St. Paul, Minn.: Redleaf Press.
Schiller, Pam, and Lynne Peterson. 1997. Beltsville, Md.: Gryphon House.
Williams, Bob, Debra Cunningham, and Joy Lubawy. 2005. Beltsville, Md.: Gryphon House.

Bronson, Martha B. 1995. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Dodge, Diane Trister, and Laura J. Colker. 1996. Washington, D.C.: Teaching Strategies, Inc.
McManus, Chris. 2002. Cambridge, Mass.
U.S. Department of Education. ERIC Thesaurus.
Wilson, Frank. 1998. New York: Random House.
Wyde, Joan. 1995. Austin: Texas Association for the Education of Young Children.