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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 development.

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, and technology.
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 challenge.
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 works.

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 floor.
Use baskets, boxes, cut-down plastic milk jugs, and plastic tubs as containers for small pieces. Transparent containers allow children to see what’s in them.
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:
table blocks and construction toys—interlocking plastic blocks, gears, small wooden table blocks
dexterity materials—sewing cards, dressing frames, stringing beads, pick-up sticks
put-together and take-apart materials—puzzles, nesting boxes, and Montessori items such as the cylinder block, pink tower, and color tablets
sorting and counting items—nuts and bolts, keys, colored cubes, counting bears, plastic lids
simple 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.”

Selecting materials
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 selecting materials:
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.