Back to basics
Teaching through learning centers
Manipulatives, or table toys, are inexpensive, versatile, tactile, and open-ended materials that support children’s development across all domains: social, emotional, cognitive, and physical. A rich variety of manipulatives gives children opportunities to explore, discover, and invent either working alone or with a small group of peers. These materials give children opportunities for concentrated, quiet play while building a range of skills including the following:
Fine-motor or small-muscle coordination, flexibility, agility, and strength;
color, shape, texture, and dimension recognition;
discrimination in recognizing similarities and differences, matching, classifying, sorting, seriating or sequencing, and identifying pattern;
attention to directions and recognizing sequences; and
problem-solving and creativity.
Manipulative play—and the skills developed—is a necessary prelude to success in both literacy (reading and writing), numeracy (work with numbers), and self-help skills (buttoning a shirt, using a knife and fork, and tying a knot). Early practice with table toys invites sorting and categorizing, counting, estimating, distinguishing between more and less, using a pincer grasp, refining deliberate finger movements, recognizing shapes, concentrating on a task, and recognizing and understanding spatial relationships.
The manipulative center traditionally includes puzzles; table games like Bingo, Chutes and Ladders®, or Candy Land®; and construction, matching, and pattern-making materials. Commercially produced manipulatives include tangrams, Cuisenaire rods, color tiles, interlocking bricks like Legos® and Duplos®, colored chips, dominoes, pegs and pegboards, lacing cards, and geoboards. Teacher-made games and activities often use dice, spinners, and markers—all inexpensive and easy to make. Increasingly popular and valuable loose parts are finding their way into the manipulatives center as well. Nuts, bottle caps, stones, sponges, bones, buttons, leaves, tiles, shells, and bolts with nuts and washers add authenticity to the broader values of manipulative play.
Use these guidelines to help make manipulative play engaging and fun.
Position the manipulative center in a quiet area of the classroom. A table top with a couple of chairs is ideal; a rug on the floor can also work to help children focus on their tasks while keeping up with materials. Make sure storage space is nearby so children can choose and return materials appropriately.
Put different toys or collections of materials in separate, labeled boxes, bins, baskets, or trays. Look for discarded muffin trays or similar containers with separated compartments for sorting, and tongs and tweezers for reinforcing fine-motor strength and accuracy.
Offer easy access to a variety of table toys including self-correcting materials like puzzles in frames, lotto games, nesting boxes, and construction blocks.
Watch children as they work, and evaluate their skills before you buy or make new manipulatives. Follow the basic scaffolding rules by offering satisfying—but not frustrating—challenges. For example, note when a child completes a complex structure with Duplos without hesitation, and be prepared to introduce an array of smaller Lego bricks.
Select materials that are made of different materials. For example, provide rubber, wooden, and cardboard floor puzzles so children can experience different textures as they play.
Maintain manipulatives. Cover paper and cardboard games with clear, adhesive-backed vinyl. Replace missing puzzle pieces and remove games with broken or missing parts that will frustrate or endanger players.
Rotate manipulatives so there are always new ways to investigate, explore, and discover.
Give children time to explore and practice. Allow for failure, fresh attempts, and endless repetition of a new skill.
Ask questions that encourage children to think in different ways about how they might use or manipulate a material. Give assistance only after a child requests it.
Provide for a range of skills in each category, always encouraging independence and self-regulation.
Categories of manipulatives—and some supply basics
Games: Visual and listening lotto, matching cards, concentration games, simple board games, picture and number dominoes, checkers
Construction toys: Locking bricks, bristle blocks, interlocking shapes, gear boxes, small wooden blocks, self-help boards with clothes fasteners or door latches, and sewing cards and laces
Pattern toys: Pegboards, geoboards, parquetry blocks, tangrams, stringing beads, nesting boxes, cylinder stacking boards, attribute blocks
Matching materials: Colored cubes, counting bears, bottle caps, plastic lids, keys, nuts and bolts, buttons, flip books, picture cards
Puzzles: Wooden, rubber, and cardboard table puzzles, floor puzzles, stacking rings, touch identification games, and guessing games