Mathematics and Manipulatives – Too Rich?

Many children with learning difficulties have difficulties counting out a given number of items. There has been a long-held belief in the usefulness of manipulatives such as counters, blocks or toy animals to practise these skills. It comes as some surprise that the research literature shows mixed benefit for children (Petersen & McNeil, 2013).

Manipulatives may be defined as being either ‘rich’ or ‘bland’. Rich manipulatives are ones that have interesting colours, shapes or textures. They may have other purposes (such as cars that are used in play situations). Rather than assisting with counting practise, they may serve to distract the child from the task at hand. The irrelevant features of the manipulative overwhelm the working memory, which may already have reduced capacity. Bland manipulatives, on the other hand, have limited distinguishing features.


 …rich manipulative – distracts by rolling




…too many colours and sizes for counting without distraction



…difficult for little hands to pick up – distracts from count



When asked to count out a group of manipulatives to make a total amount, children may fail to recognise that the items are intended to form a set. Instead they see the items as individuals, focusing on their individual characteristics. Particular difficulties may occur if these same items have previously been used in play situations.


… too closely related to real animals – difficult to see as a set


 …associated with play


At The Glenleighden School the Early Childhood teachers have been using these ideas to change their teaching practice. Where possible counting takes place in real life, purposeful situations to avoid the use of manipulatives altogether. When manipulatives are used they are chosen for their blandness! Useful manipulatives have been single colour wooden cubes that are easy for little fingers to pick up.



…bland manipulative – one colour, easy to pick up

In our class everything purple is definitely out, as are zebras and horses!

By Eduarda Van Klinken, Early Childhood Teacher at The Glenleighden School

Reference: Petersen, L. A., & McNeil, N. M. (2013). Effects of Perceptually Rich Manipulatives on Preschoolers’ Counting Performance: Established Knowledge Counts. Child Development, 84(3), 1020-1033. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12028


Share the knowledge...Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInGoogle+Pin on Pinterestshare on TumblrEmail to someoneShare on RedditDigg this