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Manipulatives: Tools for Active Learning
By Barbara Backer, M.Ed.

"Hey, Kendra, come over here!" five-year-old Kyle calls from the block area. "Let’s pretend we’re police. You build the jail over there, and I’ll make the bank here. Pretend this is our police car. We can catch the robbers and put ‘em in jail." Kyle begins making siren sounds as he pulls blocks off the shelf. Kendra arranges pillars on end, enclosing a circular space.

"No! You can’t do it that way," wails Ali. "A jail can’t be a circle. Watch me." Ali encloses a rectangular shape with pillars as she joins in the play. Kendra builds a rectangular shape beside Ali’s.

Jessie, a developmentally delayed four-year-old, takes a large number of plastic interlocking blocks (e.g., DUPLO, FlexiBlocks, Mobilo, Combi Blocks) from their dish pan container and puts them into a cloth bag. He drags the bag across the room and dumps the contents into a pile on the floor. He retraces his steps and repeats the action. Next, he fills a small wagon with the interlocking blocks from the growing pile. He rolls the wagon back to his original starting place and dumps the cargo into the dish pan.

Four-year-old Danita, draped in colorful scarves, and three-year-old José, wearing two bow ties clipped to his knit shirt, traipse from the dramatic play area to the manipulative area. She carries a pocketbook; he holds a lunch box. They fill both with small, plastic, snap-together blocks and return to the dramatic play area where they use the blocks as money and food.

Back in the block area four-year-old Naoto builds two rectangular buildings a few feet apart. Then he stands pillars on end to make a vertical path between the buildings. He gingerly lays rectangular blocks on top of the pillars to create an elaborate, elevated walk-way between the buildings. He balances wooden figurines on top of the walkway.

Carmen, age three, has taken triangular blocks to a table in the manipulative area. She sings out, "Up, down, up, down," as she lays the blocks on their sides; she arranges their points in alternating directions to form a pattern. On the floor beside her, five-year-old Joseph has built a giant structure. "Look at my picky (picket) fence," he says to Carmen, as he arranges triangular blocks, with points up, around the structure. Anson and Tamar experiment at the water table placing plastic people, animals, and other precious cargo on floating bristle blocks.

Active Learning
A look at this group of children shows how active and energetic children can be. In 1974, J. L. Hymes said, "Young children are not good sitters. They are hungry for stimulation. They want to see, touch, taste, sniff, handle, and use materials. They want to test things out for themselves" (pp. 37, 44–45). Children learn best when they are encouraged to explore, interact, create, and play (Thompkins, 1991). In fact, research confirms what most early childhood professionals already know—children learn the most when they are actively participating in the learning process (Katz, 1994).

"In any part of the curriculum, requiring too much sitting is at odds with young children’s characteristic mode of learning through activity—through moving, exploring, and acting on objects" (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997, p. 103). Children learn from interacting with adults, with each other, and with their environment. Exploring and interacting in this way is called active learning. Active learning encompasses the following educational areas—emotional, social, cognitive, and physical. Let’s look at each learning area separately.

Supporting Active Learning
Rogers and Sawyers (1988, pp. 99–100), suggest these ways for teachers to support students’ active learning:

  • Signal to children that it is OK to be messy. Allow them to mix toys together with the understanding that at clean-up time, all materials are returned to the proper place.

  • Add more and more complex materials as children become more capable. As children gain fine motor skills, add puzzles with more and smaller pieces. Add smaller building materials like LEGO bricks.

  • Store materials so they are accessible. Place items on open shelves, keeping like items together. If there are many small pieces of the same materials, store these in open dishpans that are labeled on the outside with pictures of the item.

  • Provide ample periods for children to select their own activities. Schedule large blocks of time when children can choose what they want to do and then carry through with their ideas without fear of interruption.

Emotional Learning
During the early childhood years, children deal with three of the eight stages of socio-emotional growth described by Erik Erikson. They learn (1) to trust others outside their families; (2) to gain independence and self-control; and (3) to take initiative and assert themselves in socially acceptable ways (Dodge and Colker, 1996, p. 5).

By playing with manipulative materials, children develop a sense of security that supports their emotional development. Why? Because manipulative materials are predictable and reliable. Every time you act on them in a certain way, they respond the same way (S. G. Clemens, personal communication, August 30, 1997).

When children make decisions about how they will use the materials, they experience a sense of control over their lives. Dramatic play with blocks and manipulatives puts the children in charge. They can design a world of their choosing and be in control of what happens in their world (Rogers & Sharapan, 1992).

Social Learning
"Blocks encourage children to make friends and cooperate. Large block play may be a young child’s first experience playing in a group, while playing with smaller blocks and other manipulatives may encourage an older child to work with others in solving problems" (NAEYC, 1997, p. 1). In role play with manipulative props, children learn how it feels to be powerful (the doctor, the construction worker, the mommy) or weak (the hospital patient, the baby). They learn empathy and sympathy for others. In play, children practice taking turns, working as a team, and pooling their knowledge; and they develop negotiating skills when they share materials.

Rogers and Sawyer (1988) report that Parten (1932) studied the social participation of children ages two to five and identified six increasingly complex types of peer play: unoccupied, onlooker, solitary independent play, parallel activity, associative play, and cooperative or organized supplementary play.

Though they seem to be inactive, Parten’s "unoccupied" and "onlooker" players may still be learning. Some children prefer to watch others doing a task before they give it a try. They seem to learn by watching; they mentally practice skills before trying them out. Some "children can learn to use their hands and fingers by watching others" (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997, p. 103-104). For example, children may attempt to work puzzles and use sewing cards and other manipulative materials only after watching classmates use those materials over time. Many teachers have also had experiences with students who again and again watch others cross the monkey bars, before they ever touch the equipment. Then one day those same children approach the bars, climb to the top, and go across.

Teachers must value and honor all types of play and playful learning. A child will participate in each of the stages in his or her own time. Forcing a solitary child to participate in play with others may short-circuit him or her from other learning. Invite children to participate, but don’t force them.

Social Participation in Play
Parten (1932) described the following ways children participate in play:

  • Unoccupied—Children watch others at play but do not join in. They may just stand around or move around the area.

  • Onlooker—Children watch others play, talk to other children, or ask questions. These children seem to move closer to a group rather than watching whatever momentarily catches their attention.

  • Solitary independent play—A child plays alone with objects. Even if the child is within speaking distance of others, the child does not alter her or his play or interact with others.

  • Parallel activity—A child plays with toys like those used by nearby children. The child does not try to influence other children’s activities. "He plays beside rather than with the other children" (Parten, 1932, p. 250).

  • Associative play—Common activities occur between children. Children may exchange toys and/or follow one another. All the children in the group are doing similar activities, but specific roles and goals are not defined.

(Cited in Rogers and Sawyers, 1988, pp. 20–21)

Cognitive Learning
The more experience a child has with physical objects in his or her environment, the more likely related understanding will develop (Labinowicz, 1980). Children who build towers with small blocks on the bottom and large blocks on the top of a structure quickly learn that this arrangement isn’t stable. Through experience they learn that a broad base is a better foundation for building. Another example shows that a young child doesn’t comprehend that three rows of two bottle caps is the same number as two rows of three bottle caps. It is only by repeating the experience of counting the bottle caps many times that the child begins to understand the relationship.

Playing with manipulatives, especially unit blocks, gives children opportunities to learn about physical science. "There is so much to be gained for both children and adults from putting a strong focus on physical science in the curriculum. Children gain experience in problem solving, creative thinking, spatial relations, decision making, observation, sorting, categorizing, estimating—all essential skills for later success in science" (Sprung, 1996, p. 31).

Physical Learning
Gross-motor development progresses rapidly between the ages of three and six as children begin to develop new skills and refine others (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997, p.103). Therefore, activities which help develop gross-motor movement and confidence should be incorporated into each day (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). During active play, for example, children strengthen their large muscles and whole-body coordination. They learn to be aware of their body’s position in space and to move carefully as they build with blocks in a limited space.

Manipulative materials, on the other hand, develop small muscles in children’s fingers and hands and also help children develop eye-hand coordination (Feeny & Magarick, 1984, cited in Isenberg & Jalongo, 1997). "Fine motor development progresses slowly during the preschool years but can be fostered by providing ample opportunities for open-ended activities and by providing appropriate tools and adult support" (Bredekamp and Copple, 1997, p. 104).

Manipulative Materials for Learning Centers

Block Area

transportation vehicles

hollow blocks

carpet samples

thread spools

pictures of sculpture

unit blocks

cardboard tubes

film canisters

Sand Area

cooking utensils


bottle caps




berry baskets


measuring utensils


Manipulative Area

table blocks

DUPLO blocks

counting cubes

bottle caps

Bristle Blocks

Unifix cubes

cardboard tubes


sewing cards


nuts and bolts


Dramatic Play Area

thread spools

empty boxes

Styrofoam pieces

bottle caps

cooking utensils


dolls and doll clothes

eating utensils

child-size play kitchen


Art Area

finger paints

hole punches

small staplers



rubber bands

variety of papers


wood scraps

cotton balls

variety of paints


stamp pads

sticky tape

paper clips


potato mashers

rubber stamps

plastic dollies

thread spools

Open-Ended Materials
Some classroom materials can be used only one way. Tops, wind-up toys, talking toys, worksheets, and coloring sheets are generally considered convergent materials. They lead children to think that there is only a single correct way to use them, and they require little, if any, higher-order thinking.

Other classroom materials like clay, water, blocks, and other manipulatives have many possible uses. These materials are considered divergent (Isenberg and Jalongo, 1997). Open-ended or divergent materials encourage original thinking, creativity, and experimentation.

Divergent materials are valuable for active learning. Any safe use is acceptable. As children carry manipulatives from center to center, they engage in creative thinking. They can change the material’s identity to match the activity in a play area. Bristle Blocks, for example, become combs and brushes for a doll’s hair in the dramatic play area and implements for dragging finger paint across paper in the art area. Pattern blocks can become green beans when a child in the dramatic play area uses a wooden spoon to stir them in a pot on the stove. Pieces from an alphabet puzzle go to the writing area so children can copy the letters. Bottle caps become number covers in a Bingo game or a pirate’s treasure when they are hidden outside in the sand.

Unit Blocks
"When children are allowed to choose their own activity in the preschool classroom, the block corner is always one of the most popular choices" (Provenzo and Brett, 1983, p. 48). The simple shapes and natural proportions of unit blocks appeal to children and teachers alike. They represent to a large extent the state of the art in building block design (Provenzo and Brett, 1983, p. 31). Like other manipulatives, unit blocks are divergent materials. They function on many different levels to provide a variety of learning and educational experiences for young children. They enter into the affective (social-emotional), the cognitive, and the psychomotor (physical) domains of education (Provenzo and Brett, 1983, p. 36).

"On an affective level, blocks have the potential to contribute to the development of a child’s self-confidence" (Provenzo & Brett, 1983, p. 38). Whether a two-year-old successfully creates a tower of blocks or a six-year-old constructs a neighborhood, each child gains a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of being in control because the child sees the immediate results of his or her work (Provenzo & Brett, 1983, p. 38).

Unit blocks are a unique open-ended material because they teach equivalence (S. G. Clemens, personal communication, August 30, 1997). "They offer the possibilities of using different numbers of blocks to make lines that are the same length" (Froebel Blockplay Research Group [Froebel], 1992, p. 28). Children, for example, can use a long unit block horizontally to span a specific distance, or they can use two half-units or four quarter-units to span the same space (Froebel, 1992, p. 28). Likewise they can use one long block upright to reach a specific height, or they can choose to stand two half-units or four quarter-units vertically, on top of one another, to reach the same height. These very different processes result in the same overall form (Froebel, 1992, p. 28).

Encouraging Manipulative Play
We can encourage children to play with blocks and manipulatives by joining in their play. Invite a child to go to the block area with you or sit at a table in the manipulative area, and ask a child to help you construct something with the available materials. Some children arrive in the classroom with the idea that blocks are only for boys. Help children understand that all materials are available for all children. You may need to make adjustments to your classroom layout to make manipulative materials available to children who have developmental disabilities. Provide areas that are wheelchair accessible, when necessary. Remember that manipulatives are normal play materials to visually impaired children. Offer large materials to children with motor impairment.

Also, give children encouragement and support, but be careful of giving praise. Avoid comments like these: "How smart you are! You built the tallest building. I’m so proud of you." Some children hearing that praise will limit themselves to building tall structures, hoping to earn your approval again. Instead, try these approaches:

  • State facts about the child’s work. Comment on his or her choice of materials: "I see you are using only the yellow interlocking blocks." "What nice textures you have— smooth, wooden blocks and rough bristle blocks."

  • Comment on the number or arrangement of materials (Dodge & Colker, 1996, p. 92). "You’ve used six long blocks to make the hexagon and four smaller blocks to make the square inside, and you’ve used ten blocks for the larger tower and six blocks for the smaller one."

  • Comment on the child’s designs (Dodge & Colker, 1996, p. 93). "Your log cabin has a chimney just like the cabin we saw at Hampton Park. It takes steady hands to build that."

  • Your comments demonstrate that you value what the child has done. They encourage him or her to experiment with new ideas and materials. Your comments can provide children with new vocabulary and concepts when you use words like under, through, across, behind, larger, and smaller.

Early childhood programs must provide opportunities for children to engage in exploration, and their classrooms must offer many ways for students to experience success (Hymes, 1968). A classroom full of unit blocks and other manipulatives provides children with the materials they need for active learning. A supportive teacher who respects young children’s explorations and who understands the importance of play can help active learning happen.

Barbara F. Backer, M.Ed., taught preschool for 18 years. Currently she works as an early childhood consultant and freelance writer who presents workshops, trains child care providers, and works as a CDA representative. She is the author of nine books for preschool teachers.

Portions of this article were adapted from Problem Solving Safari—Manipulatives (1997) ISBN 1-57029-121–7 and from Spicing Up Learning Centers (1996) ISBN 1-57029-099-7 by Barbara F. Backer. Permission is granted by Totline Publications, Everett, WA.


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