Teaching with Manipulatives: Pre-Grade, Grade R, 1, 2 and 3

Are you the fun teacher? The dynamic teacher who encourages students to try new things.The teacher who enjoys a fun and productive day. If you aren’t, but you’d like to be, “manipulatives” might be the answer to upping the ante in your classroom.

In the educational context, the term “manipulatives” refers to physical teaching tools that can be used to engage students visually or physically. Manipulative are easy to come by and inexpensive – they can be anything from blocks to bottle tops, coins, Lego, toys, puzzles, markers, stones, beans, match sticks, pencils etc.

Manipulatives work on the premise “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do, and I understand” and are extremely beneficial to the learning process, because they encourage students to take an active role in discovery and learning. Learning is hands on and takes place through direct experience and participation.

Manipulatives can be used in any stage of the learning process from the introduction of a concept to the ‘nitty gritty’ of the skill and finally, the consolidation of what was taught.

Why manipulatives work in the Foundation Phase:

  1. They build confidence in children.
  2. The turn an abstract concept into something concrete.
  3. They help children to test and confirm their ideas.
  4. They aid problem-solving.
  5. They make the educational process more enjoyable and engaging.

Let us look at the daily programme for a Foundation Phase learner and see how we can use all kinds of manipulatives in practical ways throughout the day.

The use of manipulatives provides a way for children to learn concepts through hands-on experience

Morning ring/welcome

This is a time of the day when children learn social skills, build confidence, develop language and listening skills, and focus on emotions. Practical ideas for using manipulatives include:

  • Have the children take turns throwing a soft toy to each other. When a child catches the toy it’s their turn to talk about how their morning went, or perhaps about a favourite pet or another topic.
  • The children can use a beanbag or a plastic bottle and match it to a picture that represents the emotion they are feeling.
  • When singing songs and saying rhymes, encourage children to use their hands.
  • Have the children use a piece of paper to draw their morning news, or to represent their feelings.

Maths ring/lesson

This is a time of the day when children learn many new skills and concepts that will help them make sense of the world and set up a foundation for future academic success. Children will learn concepts such as patterns, seriation, sorting, matching, classification, counting, addition, subtraction, division, time, multiplication, and other related topics.

  • Use beans, bottle tops, toys, match sticks, stones, number charts, abaci to count, sort, classify and match.
  • Use Lego six bricks to practice measuring, problem solving, adding, subtracting, multiplying, and other mathematical operations.
  • To reinforce mathematical and spatial vocabulary as well as addition, subtraction, and counting, you should play games like snakes and ladders.
  • Beanbags can be used as a tool to help children develop spatial vocabulary such as forwards, backwards, between, up, down, left, right, under, and on top.
  • Use a baseboard to concentrate on fundamental arithmetic operations, counting, and shape recognition as well as perceptual concepts.
  • Egg boxes can be used for practicing addition, subtraction, and multiplication. The children can throw a dice, see where it lands and use the numbers to create sums.

English/discussion ring/theme discussions/ concept lessons

At this time of the day children typically acquire the ability to communicate verbally. Children can improve their ability to listen and demonstrate consideration for one another.

  • Each child gets a turn to take a language soft toy home with them on a weekend. It is sent with a book and an explanatory letter for the parents/guardians. The child and parents/guardians can record what the child did over the weekend by writing, drawing, or pasting photographs into the book.
  • Stick pictures onto a dice and encourage the children to interprete a story depending on how the dice lands.
  • Use Lego Six Bricks to build a character or item that goes with the story above, or use the bricks to tell a different story.
  • Let the children lay out story cards, concept cards and vocabulary cards on a table. Turn them over to match nouns, verbs, adjectives (a word to a picture), or match vocabulary to a definition or picture.
  • You can use puppets to act out a scene from a play, tell a story, or have a conversation.
  • Musical Instruments can be used to make up songs, chants or poems.


Reading strengthens children’s brain activity, improves mental health, and helps them focus, remember, listen, have more empathy, and communicate effectively.

  • Read with a magnifying glass.
  • Place beans on the words that are being called out.
  • Roll a dice to read a sentence that correlates with a number.
  • Hopscotch: When you land on a number, you have to open an envelope and read the sentence or paragraph inside.
  • Read sentences while looking through a toilet roll.
  • Reading bags can be sent home with an explanatory letter for the parents/guardians. The bag can includebooks, a torch, an audio tape and a soft toy. Parents and children are encouraged to spend quality time reading together.


Writing can help children to process information. Their ability to recall information, make connections between a wide variety of concepts, and demonstrate their comprehension of a subject, all improve with writing.

  • Construct a story using dice and cards.
  • Use playdough to form words and letters.
  • Put your handwritten letters into a mailbox after you’ve finished.
  • Do your writing in the sand.

Spelling, phonetics and sight words

Children learn the relationship between the letters of the alphabet and the sounds those letters represent. Teaching children proper spelling will enable them to read, write, and communicate effectively.

  • Paste words or letters to the sides of a dice. Roll the dice, make the sounds, clap your hands and spell.
  • Paste words or letters to the inside of an egg box. Roll an object inside, observe where it lands, and record the letter or word to form a word or a sentence that the children can build on.
  • Let’s go fishing. The children fish out the word using a stick and a magnet, and then write it down.
  • Hopscotch. The child reads and spells the word as they hop from square to square.
  • To spell out a word or letter on the wall, throw a beanbag at it.
  • Put a plastic bottle cap on each of the words as they are called out.

Perceptual skills

By interacting with their environment and learning through their senses children grow their ability to understand and react to sensory and motor experiences.

  • Spatial directions, (up, down, left, right, above, below). Ask the child to position a bean or stone at a specific point around a toy. Alternatively, use the child’s body to position the item using the toy.
  • Perceptual bags: Each child can take a bag home with them to use for a few days. Depending on the child’s age, the bag should include a covering letter that provides an explanation of the significance of perceptual activities, as well as a puzzle, games, and either a colouring page or a two-dimensional perceptual worksheet.
  • Snakes and ladders is an excellent game to improve perceptual skills as the players gain an understanding of left, right, up, down, counting, addition, and subtraction.

The development of fine and gross motor skills

Children learn to exercise their muscles to better prepare them for the next stage of their educational journey. The more a child practices a skill, until they have mastered
it, the more self-assured they will be in their ability to perform that skill.

  • Use pegs, tweezers, toilet paper rolls, tearing paper, marbles, cutting, folding, Lego, construction toys, sorting buttons, paper clips, playdough, puzzles, threading, weaving, stuffing stockings with paper, and chopsticks to name a few. These items can be used either inside or outside as part of a lesson, or during discovery time.
  • An exercise for the fine motor skills: Take a tennis ball and cut a line to create a split for the mouth. After that, the tennis ball can be decorated to look like a face. A name can be given to the tennis ball, and it can even be given a birth certificate. Use the ball in class or at home to help explain various skills and concepts. The youngsters can “feed” the ball words, letters, numbers etc by squeezing open the mouth.
  • To develop gross motor skills use balls of varying sizes, beanbags, hula hoops, skipping ropes, balance beams, walking stilts, bikes, noodles, and similar items.

Developing a growth mindset and emotional intelligence

To cultivate a growth mindset children need to acquire the skills of working together, cooperating, respecting one another, developing perseverance, sharing, and being kind to one another.

Every lesson should devote some time to discussing this idea and manipulatives and games can be used to explore the concepts. Children learn to work together and take turns, they learn that they won’t always be successful, and that it’s okay to make mistakes.

It is essential for teachers and adults to provide these learning opportunities and teachable moments for our students and other children in our care. Manipulatives can help to provide a safe environment in which children can explore, gain knowledge and self-assurance, find their place in the world, and develop positive qualities.

Congratulations, you have reached the status of the most enjoyable and exciting educator, as well as the position at which genuine learning takes place. Keep on educating.