Math Manipulatives—Help or Hindrance?

As early educators, we have been taught the value of concrete, hands-on learning experiences. Children learn best by doing. In math, one of the most frequently used methods of providing concrete, hands-on experience is through manipulatives.  Especially for one-to-one correspondence and addition and subtraction, simple counters are some of the most-used manipulatives. I think, at one time or another, I have used about every kind of counter made—discs, bears in three sizes, cars, etc., etc., etc.

I read an article today about the down side of manipulatives (McNeil and Jarvin, 2007). The authors contend that there are two reasons that use of manipulatives can be harmful in math education. The first reason, which I don’t believe is an issue in Early Childhood Education, is that teachers hold on to a belief that math should be explained to children rather than discovered. The teacher will guide a student step-by-step through the problem, allowing the child practice the procedures, and providing feedback as necessary. The authors quoted one teacher as saying “Sometimes I think that they are just having fun, but I don’t mind because eventually we’ll get to the real math part.” That does not sound like an early educator to me.

However, the authors’ second concern regarding manipulatives was interesting to me. They contend that “poorly chosen” manipulatives can pose problems. They state that it is confusing for children when everyday items are used as manipulatives…you know, like when I used little cars. The authors’ research found that familiar manipulatives, especially those that are very perceptually detailed, can be distracting as the student may spend more time thinking about the objects and their known purposes than about the math concepts being presented (ScienceDaily, 2013). Yet that same perceptual detail can help a student’s understanding of the concept if the manipulative is not a well-known item. McNeil summarized this finding as "…it is easier for children to use objects in mathematical tasks when those objects have maximum 'bling' (they are bright and shiny) and minimum recognizability".

Food for thought when you are planning your next math activity.  (Just be sure that your new manipulatives are appropriate-sized so that they do not present choking hazards.)


“When Theories Don’t Add Up: Disentangling the Manipulatives Debate” by Nicole McNeil and Linda Jarvin in Theory Into Practice, Fall 2007 (Vol. 46, #4, p. 309-316).

University of Notre Dame. "Child's counting comprehension may depend on objects counted, study shows." ScienceDaily, 18 Apr. 2013. Web. 22 Apr. 2013.