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Manipulatives: Sensory experiences that are safe, ethically sound, inexpensive, and fun


Henry (age 4) beams with delight when he announces, “Done!” on the completion of a 30-piece floor puzzle.

LaJean (age 11 months) crawls across the carpet to reach the red ball her teacher has rolled across the floor.

Winalee (age 2) contentedly scoops and then pours colored aquarium gravel through a funnel again and again.

Carlos (age 5) works with his friends Debbie and Ben to construct an elaborate space station with Lego® bricks.

Rosemary (age 18 months) toddles around the classroom gathering plush toys into her basket. Then she dumps them out and moves on to gather beanbags.



The common theme for these activities is manipulative play. Too often an afterthought, manipulatives—small materials that children learn to control with their fingers—are essential learning tools that can be safe, ethically sound, inexpensive, and fun.

Although manipulative toys and activities are evident in all areas of an early care and education classroom, most teachers dedicate a special area of the environment to support and enhance the development of children’s fine-motor coordination.

Sometimes referred to as the table games center or fine-motor center, the manipulatives center in preschool and school-age classrooms is typically a separate, quiet space where children work independently or in a small group (at a table or on the floor). The materials for the center are designed to encourage children to practice using small hand muscles in the fingers and wrists while building visual acuity and discrimination, dexterity, hand-eye coordination, agility, strength, and control.

Manipulatives also stimulate cognitive processes as children solve problems through trial and error, discover relationships among materials, and engage in the emerging numeracy processes involved in counting, ordering, sorting, and patterning. Emotional, social, and language benefits are manifest as children gain experience in working cooperatively with others—with self-discipline, perseverance, confidence, and focus—to a task’s completion.


Selecting materials for manipulative play
Manipulative materials are meant to be handled. Choose materials that are washable (or recyclable), replaceable, and sturdy enough for children to use repeatedly. When a material becomes ragged, remove or replace it—the condition of a toy impacts how a child with play with it.

Be attentive to potentially dangerous materials like glass marbles (they can break and can also be a choking hazard), feathers (can provoke an allergic reaction), and water (an obvious drowning hazard). All of these materials are worthy of exploration, but children must be taught how to use them respectfully and carefully, and adults must supervise diligently. Make sure all materials are non-toxic.

It’s wise to consider the ethical implications of using food like beans, rice, macaroni, and pudding for play. Not only is sanitation a challenge (how do you clean these materials?), but food play sends an inconsistent message to children. As teachers strive to help children reduce the amount of wasted food at mealtime, it’s confusing to sometimes use that same food as a disposable toy. Certainly cooking and food exploration activities are appropriate, but there’s a difference between tasting activities that focus on nutrition and activities that disregard nutrition and focus on play.


Manipulative play for infants and toddlers
Reaching, grasping, and releasing are fundamental fine-motor skills. A newborn is able to grasp, but the ability to identify a desired object and reach for it and the coordination needed to release that object come with practice and muscle refinement.

Infant and toddler rooms typically have a carpeted area for exploratory play that invites large-muscle use—crawling, climbing, and tumbling. This area is also perfect for activities that promote refining small-motor skills like finger isolation, pincer grasp, and bilateral (synchronizing hand and arm movement) activity.

Make sure to provide a variety of attractive objects that engage babies’ curiosity and interest like stacking and nesting toys. Offer toys that fit in one hand (like a light-up ball) as well as those that require a two-handed grip. Vary the shapes and textures of objects—picking up a cloth ball requires different skills that holding a square wooden block, for example. Encourage full body movement by putting an object just out of reach and to the baby’s side.

As babies gain the control and coordination necessary for standing and walking, continue to build manipulative experiences. Use baskets, buckets, cut-down plastic milk jugs, and plastic bowls to contain small toys. Square containers are more space-efficient than round ones. Transparent containers help children see what’s in the container and help young children begin to understand that play materials have appropriate storage spaces.

When toddlers are adept enough to use chairs and tables, set up table-top manipulatives on trays or carpet squares. For a color-sorting activity, for example, put a cut-down egg carton on a tray next to a basket of colored plastic chips. Store the tray on a low shelf, and encourage the children to carry the tray to a table, complete the activity, and return the tray to the shelf.

Materials that stimulate the senses are important in infant and toddler spaces. Supervise for safety and talk with children as they play—describing colors, textures, odors, and sounds.

Consider including these inexpensive, easy-to-clean, manufactured materials:
wooden spoons
sponges (wet and dry)
silk scarves
Koosh® balls
cotton balls
metal spoons
plastic bowls
pots and lids
3-inch square lumber blocks
2- to 5-piece wooden-inset puzzles
tennis balls
lengths of light chain
keys on rings
Bristle blocks
plastic bracelets
And these natural materials:
pine cones
big feathers
loofa sponges
large sea shells
large stones
small cloth bags containing rosemary or lavender sprigs


Manipulative play for preschoolers and school-age children
Because a classroom always has a range of ages, experiences, and skill levels, it’s wise to offer an array of manipulative materials and allow children to work at their interest level. Many manipulatives are self-correcting (think about a matching activity) and allow children to challenge themselves to work at the next highest skill level, such as when José decides he’s ready to tackle the 10-piece, bordered jigsaw puzzle rather than the inset puzzles he’s mastered.

Be sure to consider children’s attention spans, the amount of available space and time (does a puzzle need to be completed before the table is set for lunch?), sensory exploration opportunities, and storage constraints as you plan activities.

Manipulatives can be roughly grouped into five categories—with huge overlap. Work to make all categories available to children, according to their developmental levels. and interests.
Toys that children put together and take apart. These include puzzles, nesting boxes, sorting boxes, pegboards and pegs, and matching activities. These toys are generally self-correcting—there’s only one right way to put them together.
Toys that build focus and coordination. These include frames that help children learn to zip, button, and snap clothing and those that let children explore latches, locks and keys, and door handles. Also in the category are folder activities, sewing cards, beading activities, inset puzzles, and pick-up sticks.
Toys that children sort, classify, pair, and seriate. These include colored cubes, chips, and buttons; attribute blocks; counting bears; parquetry blocks; and graduated cylinders. Also in the category are natural materials like pine cones, stones, leaves, and seeds.
Toys that invite open-ended construction. Construction toys involve manipulating one or more pieces of material to create something new. Examples include interlocking plastic blocks like Duplo® and Lego® bricks, gears, and wooden blocks.
Simple games that encourage social interaction and cooperation. Examples include lotto and bingo games, checkers, card games, and board games.

Work to make manipulative activities inviting and aesthetically pleasing. Make sure materials are in good condition and sets (like puzzles and matching cards) complete. Build a collection of presentation containers and trays that fit on a labeled shelf, inviting children to choose an activity and then replace the materials for the next child’s use. Make sure there are enough materials (varying in complexity) available for choice; rotate materials weekly to engage and sustain children’s interest.

Look for potential manipulative materials and for opportunities to develop activities that are quick and easy to make as well as free or inexpensive. Hardware stores, fabric shops, lumberyards, and natural settings offer abundant choices—all less costly than materials in a teacher catalog or supply store.

Think of 1) donated or handmade materials, 2) household items, and 3) those materials that are best purchased. If you are buying materials, save money by buying the best quality for greatest durability; purchased materials should be open-ended and adaptable to many uses and activities. For all three, keep safety paramount in your planning.
Teacher-made or donated materials can include cardboard puzzles (glue a picture onto cardboard, laminate, and cut into pieces), buttons (for sorting and stringing), geoboards and pegboards (drill a grid of holes in smooth lumber to fit with golf tees or pegs), lacing cards (punch holes in laminated cardboard shapes and lace with yarn), bingo and lotto games, playing cards, flannel board shapes and figures, and cards to match by colors, shapes, and photographs.
Household items, recyclables, and natural objects include keys on rings; nuts, bolts and washers; plastic lids; fabric scraps; ribbon; small ceramic tiles; paint samples; clothespins; plastic water bottles and containers; kitchen tools including scoops, funnels, eggbeaters, basters and tongs; rocks, stones, and pebbles; shells; tree leaves, twigs, branches, and stumps; flowers and herb sprigs; pine cones, pods, seeds, and nuts.
Commercially produced materials include wooden puzzles (both inset and framed); plastic sorters and counters; Duplo® and Lego® bricks; small plastic animals and people; wooden table blocks (like Dr. Drew’s at, wooden Lincoln Logs; magnifiers, durable, framed mirrors; colored wooden beads, and a light table.


Activity ideas
Use the following ideas to broaden your existing collection of manipulative materials and activities. And remember, the benefits of manipulative play apply to all areas of the classroom—indoors and out.


Storytelling props
Use cardboard tubes to make props for the manipulative center and to use at circle time or in the library center. If necessary, look for simple images on the Internet or in old coloring books to guide your art.


Cardboard tube characters
Here’s what you need:
cardboard tubes
colored paper


1. Choose a specific story (like The Three Little Pigs, The Three Bears), book characters (George and Martha), or generic animals that invite children to make up their own stories.
2. Cover the cardboard tube with colored paper.
3. Draw faces or other distinctive features of the character. Cut out and glue to the tube.


Clothespin characters
Here’s what you need:
wooden clothespins with hinges
colored paper


1. Draw and cut out animal body parts.
2. Use clothespins as legs so the animals can stand alone.
3. Decorate the animal with colored markers.


Classmate characters
Here’s what you need:
camera and printer
binder clips or cardboard tubes
laminator or clear, adhesive-backed vinyl


1. Take photographs of the children in the group. Center the children in the screen so that you get a head-to-foot shot; make sure the distance from camera to child is consistent so the finished images will be the same size.
2. Print the images.
3. Glue the images to cardboard and allow to dry.
4. Laminate or cover the images with clear, adhesive-backed vinyl.
5. Cut out the images leaving a ⅛-inch margin.
6. Either glue the images to cardboard tubes or clip to a binder clip. Either will allow the image to stand independently.


Explore clips
Build skills with a collection of clips to use for sorting, matching, and counting.


First exploration
Here’s what you need:
assortment of clips: paper, binder, clothespins in different sizes, colors, and materials
10-inch by 2-inch strips of cardboard
metal muffin tin
paper scraps
work tray


1. Invite children to practice squeezing the binder clips and clothespins to open; show how to manipulate paper between the prongs of paper clips.
2. Encourage children to sort the clips by attribute—color, type, or material—into the muffin tin.
3. Challenge children to attach all the chips matching one attribute to a strip of cardboard—for example, all the red clips or all the clothespins.
4. Vary the attribute instruction while reinforcing sorting and manual dexterity, strength, and coordination.


Paint chip clips
If you are preparing this activity for young preschoolers, use chips in primary and secondary colors that are easy to differentiate. For older children, consider using gradients of more subtle colors—dark to light gray, for example—to reinforce visual discrimination skills.


Here’s what you need:
wooden clothespins with hinges
assorted paint chips
small bowl
work tray


1. Prepare the activity by cutting the paint chips in two. Trim one piece to the size of a clothespin lever. Cut the other into a 1- to 2-inch square.
2. Glue the narrow paint chip strips to the clothespins. Place the matching color squares in a small bowl on the work tray.
3. Show children how to choose a color that matches the one on the clothespin and clip it into place.
4. Vary the number of pieces in the activity according to the skill levels of the children.


Counting with clips
Here’s what you need:
3-inch squares of heavy paper
colored markers
small bowl
work tray


1. Prepare the activity by writing the numerals from 1 to 10 on heavy paper. Around the edges of each numeral card, draw solid dots to correspond to the numeral. For example, the card with the numeral 4 will have four dots.
2. Place the paperclips in a small bowl on the work tray. Place the numeral cards on the tray next to the bowl. Limit the number of cards and clips to the counting skills of the children.
3. Challenge children to identify the numeral (sight recognition), count the number of dots, and attach the corresponding number of clips to the card (one-to-one correspondence and counting skills).


Activities with craft sticks
Wide wooden craft sticks (or tongue depressors) are inexpensive and readily available.


Stick puzzles
Here’s what you need:
color image
craft sticks
paper glue or rubber cement
craft knife
stack of newspaper
work tray


1. Choose a color image from a magazine or the Internet that’s about 4-inchs high and 6-inches wide. Choose a simple image (like a face or a tree) for young children; older children will appreciate a more complex image (like a reproduction of a Jackson Pollock painting).
2. Place craft sticks side by side on a tray in a place that won’t be moved for several hours.
3. Spread glue over the entire back of the image.
4. Place the image on the sticks making sure the sticks are lined up consistently side by side. Smooth carefully and let dry.
5. Turn the image upside down on a stack of newspaper. Carefully cut the sticks apart.
6. Place the pieces on a work tray.
7. Introduce the puzzle to children, challenging them to complete the puzzle, building visual acuity, decision-making, and coordination skills.


Matching sticks
Here’s what you need:
craft sticks
colored markers or paint pens
work tray


1. Prepare for the activity by placing two craft sticks side by side.
2. Draw patterns like squiggled lines and basic shapes across the two sticks so that half of the image is on one stick and the other half on the other.
3. Place the sets of sticks on a work tray. Adjust the number of pairs to the skill levels of the children.

Variation: Beginning writers will enjoy this activity with words or names printed across the two sticks so that the top of a letter is on one stick and the bottom on the other.


Balance challenge
Here’s what you need:
craft sticks
muffin tin
white glue
colored pom-poms
small bowl
work tray


1. Prepare for the activity by gathering pairs of pom-poms by color. Choose the number of pairs according to the children’s skill levels.
2. Glue one pom-pom from each pair to the end of a craft stick. Allow to dry.
3. Place the matching pom-poms in a small bowl on a work tray.
4. Challenge the children to scoop the matching color pom-pom onto the free end of the craft stick and then to dump it into an empty muffin-tin cup.

Variation: Increase the balance challenge by encouraging children to walk around the table once before dropping the pom-pom into the muffin cup.


Folder games
Manila file folders are easy to store and relatively durable if you laminate them. Attach a small zip-top bag to the back to hold game pieces.


Match it
Matching silhouettes is simple and infinitely variable for toddlers through school-age children.


Here’s what you need:
manila file folder
choice of images
colored paper
laminator or clear, adhesive-backed vinyl
small zip-top bag
work tray


1. Prepare for the activity by choosing a category of images—basic shapes or colors to more complex shapes like leaf varieties.
2. Prepare two of each image using either colored paper or markers.
3. Open the folder and glue one of each pair into place. Alternatively, draw the silhouette of the image onto the open folder.
4. Laminate the folder or cover on the inside with clear, adhesive-backed vinyl.
5. Tape the storage bag to the outside of the folder. Place the matching images into the bag.
6. Place the folder on a work tray.
7. Challenge children to match the image to its silhouette.


Going on a trip
Help children build storytelling and vocabulary skills with this activity.


Here’s what you need:
manila file folder
discarded magazines
colored paper
laminator or clear, adhesive-backed vinyl
small bowl
small zip-top bag
work tray


1. Prepare for the activity by cutting a variety of images from magazines—clothing, foods, toys, books, and people. Cut paper into squares and glue an image to each. Make the sizes consistent.
2. Open the folder and draw a grid with 6 squares across and 3 down. Number the grid sections (reinforcing reading from left to right and top to bottom).
3. Laminate the folder or cover on the inside with clear, adhesive-backed vinyl.
4. Tape the storage bag to the back of the folder. Place the images onto the bag.
5. Place the folder on a work tray and the images in a small bowl.
6. Invite children to imagine going on a trip and packing a suitcase. What do they choose to take? Place the image in the first open square on the grid.
7. Vary the activity by using the images as a memory game like “I’m going to the moon and I’ll take a ….”


Lacing activities
Build hand-eye coordination and dexterity with lacing activities.


Lacing shapes
Here’s what you need:
craft foam
hole punch
shape template
work tray


1. Cut the craft foam into shapes. Use images from the Internet or old coloring books as a template. Choose basic shapes, numerals, and familiar objects like a dog, shirt, or tree.
2. Place a foam shape and shoelace onto a work tray.
3. Show children how to lace the shape, moving the shoelace in and out of the holes.
4. When all the holes are filled, show how to gently unlace the shape.


Bead stringing
Here’s what you need:
colored beads
chenille stems
small bowl
work tray


1. Place colored beads in a small bowl on a work tray.
2. Place a chenille stem next to the tray.
3. Encourage children to string beads onto the chenille stem.
4. When the stem is filled, a child returns the beads to the bowl.

Variation: Make a pattern card with circles of colors to match the beads. Challenge children to copy the pattern.


Here’s what you need:
berry baskets and similar containers with lacing spaces
collection of yarn, ribbon, and chenille stems
work tray


1. Place the basket on a work tray.
2. Place weaving materials on the tray next to the basket.
3. Invite children to weave through the holes in the basket, colander, metal baking rack, dish drainer, or plastic mesh.
4. Show how to gently unlace the weaving and return the materials to the storage shelf.


Outside the box
While this article has focused on experiences for children in the manipulative center, don’t ignore environmental changes that invite sensory explorations. Consider these ideas as you strive to make your classroom rich and inviting.
Divide areas with curtains made of gauzy, sheer fabric, lengths of fabric strips, lengths of bamboo stalks, plastic beads (, or a string of party lights (with cord safely out of the way).
Glue small (1-inch) craft mirrors back to back along lengths of transparent fish line. Hang in a sunny window and watch for reflected dancing light.
Store manipulative materials in identically sized plastic or cardboard bins that are covered with reflective contact paper or matching wallpaper or grasscloth.
Place a collection of small hand bells on a tray.
Mount sensory treasures—knobs that turn, bristle brushes, large scallop shells, large pom poms—on wall panels for babies to explore.
Place binoculars on a special tray next to a window so that children can observe the outdoors.
Surprise children with a unique and unexpected prop or activity on the playground—a tree stump, wind chimes, a long and wide cardboard tube (like a Sonotube concrete form), or a snack picnic.
Add rosemary needles or lavender flowers to sand in the sensory table.
Hang a wall mirror near the art area so children can explore reflection, symmetry, and light.
Make a sheer curtain for a bright window and add pockets. Place unexpected treasures—like beads, flowers, photos, or pom poms—in the pockets. Remember to change the display regularly.


Bronson, M. B. (1995). The Right Stuff for Children Birth to 8. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Curtis, D. & Carter, M. (2003). Designs for Living and Learning: Transforming Early Childhood Environments. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
Isbell, R. & Exelby, B. (2001). Early Learning Environments That Work. Beltsville, MD: Gryphon House.
Nicholson, Shelley & Martinez, J. (2017). Thrifty Teacher’s Guide to Creative Learning Centers. Lewisville, NC: Gryphon House.
Seefeldt, C. (2002). Creating Rooms of Wonder: Valuing and Displaying Children’s Work to Enhance the Learning Process. Beltsville, MD: Gryphon House.