The Manipulatives/Table Toys Center in Child Care

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Manipulatives and Table Toys Support Children’s Development

A wide variety of materials used in child care and early education programs fall into the category of “manipulatives,” including different types of building bricks and toys, collections of objects for sorting, small dolls and animals, and many other types of toys. Manipulatives, sometimes referred to as table toys, are an important part of the early childhood curriculum because children can use them to practice a wide variety of skills. Some of the most common skills children learn by using manipulatives include:

  • Fine motor skills, eye-hand coordination, and visual discrimination
  • Recognition of shapes, colors, and textures
  • Comparison of similarities and differences, matching, classification, and pattern recognition
  • Following directions, following sequences, and concentrating for completing tasks
  • Chances to practice creativity and problem-solving

What Teachers Should Know about Manipulatives

Understanding the child’s role: The manipulatives center is a place where children are generally working alone or in pairs on tasks that require concentration and thought. It is important to set up a manipulatives center far away from centers that tend to be noisy and active, such as block building and dramatic play. Having child-sized tables with only a few chairs at each table further encourages children to work individually or in small groups. 

Understanding the teacher’s role: Teachers can support children’s play with manipulatives by providing interesting materials, rotating materials based on children’s interests and curriculum themes, and asking questions that stimulate children’s thinking. For example, the teacher could ask a child who has grouped a set of toys by color whether there is any other way to group them, such as size or shape.

Early childhood educators also need to teach children the guidelines for using the table toys center. Some common rules include:

  • sharing materials (even if children choose to work alone)
  • keeping materials on the tables
  • not interfering with other children’s work unless invited

Teachers are responsible for the following in the manipulatives/table toys center:

  • Observing small motor skills and eye-hand coordination when children are using manipulatives
  • Asking questions that encourage children to think of different ways to use the materials
  • Giving assistance when a child requests it
  • Helping children clean up and organize the materials when they are finished using them
  • Replacing materials that are broken or no longer safe

For more specific tips on setting up a manipulatives/table toys center, see Planning a Successful Manipulatives/Table Toys Center in Child Care.

For More Information

To learn more about using learning centers in the early childhood classroom, take a look at the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles:

Photo by Annielogue / CC BY