Manipulatives in Education: Definition, Examples & Classroom Applications

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  • 0:05 What Are Manipulatives?
  • 1:01 Applications in Math
  • 2:09 Applications in Poetry
  • 2:43 Applications in Geography
  • 3:48 Applications in Language
  • 4:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Mary Firestone
Expert Contributor
Grace Pisano

Grace has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught high school in several states around the country.

Find out what manipulatives are and how they're used in an educational setting. Learn how to apply manipulatives to lessons in your classroom. Read the lesson, then take a quiz to test your new knowledge.

What Are Manipulatives?

Manipulatives, in the context of education, are physical tools of teaching, engaging students visually and physically with objects such as coins, blocks, puzzles, markers, etc. The use of manipulatives is constructivist because students are actively engaged in discovery during the learning process. A teacher provides the materials along with a basic direction, but students should be allowed to explore the materials and ask questions before and during the lesson.

According to education professor Dr. Jean Shaw, manipulatives are effective for the following reasons: they are multisensory, they represent ideas in more than one way, they promote communication among students, and they increase confidence, leading to lessened confusion and deepened understanding.

According to a review of studies by the National Center for Accessing the General Curriculum, certain groups of students, including learning-disabled students and students with limited English skills, benefit from using manipulatives.

Applications in Math

Math lessons are a common classroom application of manipulatives because they easily allow students to physically apply the concepts of addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication. For example, students could 'play store' with 'money' that they create in a separate class project. Allow them to decide on what type of store it will be and let them bring things of their own to 'sell,' or allow them to create the products, which remain in the classroom when the lesson isn't in progress.

Elementary students could first have a math lesson that focuses on how to make change. They would be taught the values of coins; pennies are one cent, nickels are five cents, dimes are ten cents, and so on. They could then practice skills of addition and subtraction by making change while shopping and paying for items in the class 'store.' Students purchasing items would compare prices to the amount of money they have to spend, and store keepers could practice giving them back their correct change.

Additional manipulatives for math instruction could be:

  • Tangrams
  • Interlocking cubes
  • Pattern blocks
  • Fraction bars
  • Probability spinners
  • Protractors

Applications in Poetry

Teaching poetry can be more interesting for younger students if they're given a chance to physically choose rhyming words, for example, with magnetic poetry. Post magnetic words on a blank magnetic surface in the classroom for random moments of poetic inspiration or use magnetic poetry as part of an assignment.

Additional manipulatives for poetry instruction could be:

  • Allowing students to cut words out of magazines and arrange them in a poetic form
  • Ask students to create artwork that matches the content or mood of a poem they've written or one that's been studied in class

Applications in Geography

Geography lessons lend themselves easily to manipulatives since you're teaching students about something concrete. Use magnetic puzzles for identifying states or create a project using Google Earth, complete with mapping vocabulary terms. Students can print out the maps and mark the location of key points in their neighborhood, such as the school or fire station.

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Additional Activities

Incorporating Manipulatives in the Classroom

After pre-service teachers learn about the importance of using manipulatives in the classroom, they will be eager to think about ways to use them in their future class. In this extension, students will reflect on a lesson they have been a part of that used manipulatives and brainstorm ways to use manipulatives in the future.

Part I: Reflection

First, ask students to write a short reflection about a memorable lesson growing up that used manipulatives. They should think about how they were used in the lesson and the impact it had on what they learned. Although this is designed to be a reflection, if your students learn best through discussion, feel free to turn this question into a discussion.

Part II: Application

Students will broadly brainstorm a way that they can use manipulatives in a future lesson they will teach. This might look different for each student in your class, depending on what age or subject they plan to teach. Regardless, have students pick a topic that is taught in their curriculum. For example, a future history teacher could pick the Civil War and an elementary teacher can pick multiplication.

Students should record the lesson topic they are thinking of and then list out about five ways they could use manipulatives. After students are done, allow them to link up with their peers to share ways they plan to use manipulatives.

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