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Find out what manipulatives are and how they’re used in an educational setting. Learn how to apply manipulatives to lessons in your classroom.

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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.Students can also create maps of the classroom or the school. They should first learn the concept of scale and how to reduce the floor plan of the school to the size of a large map (for example, the size of a blackboard).

As with standard maps that use different colors for ocean depths, mountain height, etc. students could use colors that designate the types of spaces (for example, classrooms would be one color, hallways another).Some additional manipulatives for geography lessons could be:

  • World maps to label and/or color regions, like continents, countries, and capitals
  • Maps to label or color landforms, like mountain ranges, lakes, and deserts
  • Topographic maps
  • Latitude and longitude charts for plotting locations

Applications in Language

Teach students grammar by letting them match words with parts of speech represented by color-coded wood blocks. Nouns, verbs, prepositions, adjectives, adverbs, articles, and conjunctions are given different colored blocks (such as verbs-green, nouns-blue, etc.

) and students can choose words that match the parts of speech by writing the word on the block, forming a whole sentence. Blocks should be painted with high-gloss paint and students can use erasable markers. That way, if they make a mistake, they can wipe the word off and try again.Some additional manipulatives for grammar and parts of speech could be:

  • Flashcards that students create with words and pictures on one side and parts of speech on the other
  • Out-of-order sentences to unscramble into grammatically-correct sentences

Lesson Summary

Manipulatives are objects like puzzle blocks, markers, coins, etc.

that a student can have a hands-on interaction with. Using these objects is constructivist, or actively engaging tools for children to better grasp a concept or lesson. You could play ‘store’ in math class, use word magnets in poetry class, print out blank maps for geography, or color-coded blocks for grammar.

Vocabulary & Definitions

Manipulatives: Manipulatives are physical tools of teaching. They engage students visually and physically and include objects such as coins, blocks, puzzles, markers, etc.Constructivist: Constructivist refers to the fact that students are actively engaged and learning through experiences.Manipulatives for geography lessons: These refer to the use of things like maps that students can color and label.Manipulatives for grammar: These refer to the use of things like flashcards or sentence scrambles that require the student to unscramble the sentence to make it grammatically correct.

Learning Outcomes

Examine the lesson thoroughly so that you can:

  • Define constructivism and manipulatives
  • List examples of manipulatives that can be used in various subjects
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