What’s a manipulative, anyway?
What in the world are manipulatives?! I explained in the last post about block play that manipulatives are building materials that involve smaller fine motor movements in order to put together structures. The structures could be something that resembles something “real,” like a building or a place, or they could just be abstract. The reason for this lies mainly in the materials.
Important Kid Language Fact:
Following directions is a cornerstone of pediatric language. Though we usually think of language to involve speaking and speech, receptive language, or what a child can understand is, just as important! In fact, most children have stronger receptive language before expressive language because they are absorbing what’s going on around them long before they say anything at all. Many of the manipulatives here can be used for intentional play with following directions. That means that as a parent or teacher, you can use the color, shape, and size to help your child build something intentional.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say you want to aid your child in learning how to build a house out of Legos. If they haven’t done this before, you may say, “OK, go find the flat, green board that looks like grass.” Once the child pulls that out, you would continue, “Let’s find four, really long yellow pieces to build as the base of the house.” And so on, and so on. You are essentially giving your child instructions that they need to follow, testing their receptive language by following directions.
But what about Free Play?
I know, I know. I have been raving about child-led play. Let the kids do whatever they want! Don’t tell them what to do! See where their creativity takes you! Blah blah blah. And yes, you can employ that strategy here too – but this is also a great time to test your kiddo’s receptive language because there are so many small pieces at play here – and so many of these manipulatives come in various colors and shapes. It is a great opportunity to do a bit of guided play, while sprinkling in some language skills.
Can infants use manipulatives?
This is a tricky one – yes and no. They certainly cannot use manipulatives like Legos because they are far too small and a choking hazard. However, there are Duplos and Megablocks, which are the extra large versions of Legos and infants can start using these, instead! You can show your infant how to stack a Megablock and make a tower. Or you can build side-by-side with your infant and show them how you made an apartment building. Tell them what you’re building together. Name the shapes, colors, and sizes. Trust me, they are watching you closely!
Setting the scene
Here are some of my favorite manipulatives. Like I said above, some will allow children to construct something resembling a familiar object, others are just cool for the sake of putting two items together to make a different item!
Legos are a “tale as old as time.” Truly. As long as all the Legos get picked up off of the floor, I’m super cool with them serving as the main manipulative in a child’s playroom or classroom. This is because they are so diverse. They can be themed, come in various colors, shapes, and sizes, and even be expanded to build large scale structures! Legos can help your child learn dimension and depth. Try to give your child the words for these spatial concepts, like height and width, and you can even incorporate more sophisticated language and geometry!
You may recognize bristle blocks, but never have known that they had a name. These interlocking blocks are awesome for fine motor stacking and balance. This is because they are fairly stable, but once you stack many of them, they can tip over. They are great if your child is a little sensory-sensitive and doesn’t like loud noises (like a wooden block tower falling down). Instead these manipulatives can be made into different shapes and buildings, and if they fall down, they are relatively light. The main reason I like these bristle blocks is their prickly texture. They give sensory input, provide the opportunity for fine motor and can work for building larger structures.
An oldie but goodie! These are the best. Again, you’ll see that the theme here for manipulatives is “interlocking.” It takes so fine motor precision, thought and industriousness to work manipulatives like Lincoln Logs because they are more difficult to balance. To help your child learn with Lincoln Logs, start the base of a structure (i.e. a square or rectangle) and show your child how the logs interconnect. This manipulative is less intuitive than other manipulatives, like Legos, that just stick. Therefore, this is a great opportunity to initiate some problem solving skills. You can try to implement where, why, and how questions when putting Lincoln Logs together with your child. For example, if your child tries to put the logs together in the wrong fashion, you can ask, “Hm, why are you putting the log there?” This type of open-ended question can get your child’s wheels turning, start a conversation, and help you to understand his/her thought process.
Squigz are fun! Again, these require some fine motor precision in order to get them to stick to each other tightly and with enough suction. This is what makes them different from other manipulatives, but really gives a great platform for language. Squigz come in shapes with different angles, a great opportunity to talk about geometry. Simple words like “push” and “pull” can be worked on with the infant and toddler population. I also love these because there aren’t really small loose parts that an infant can choke on. Though they aren’t for chewing, they do have a soft, flexible, rubber design, and so if they end up in your baby’s mouth, it’s not the end of the world.
Pegs and pegboards can be used for so much more than fine motor learning. In fact, they are a great resource for learning to count and multiply. Because the peg boards come in a grid, you can try to start introducing some math language, such as “This is a 2×2 square,” or “This is a 2×4 rectangle.” These are advanced concepts, but pegs can be used for color identification and simple 1-1 counting as well! (1-1 counting is when you put your finger on an object as you count it, this is a great way for your kiddos to learn to count).
Crystal Climbers are super fun for several reasons. One, they can not only be used for manipulatives to build, they actually work great for color identification. Two, since they come in various colors and shapes, they can be used for following directions. Plus, these are light, and don’t take up a lot of space, which means that storing them in a playroom can be as simple as putting them in a plastic bag, or a small bin!
** this post contains affiliate links for your convenience! please see my full disclosure policy here. If you have questions about other materials you would like to try with your child, please leave a comment below.
I would love to hear about how you use manipulatives with your children or your students. They are a great source of conversation and target many developmental areas. Leave a comment below sharing your FAVORITE manipulative toy!