Manipulative play: For Motor Skills & Maths

"Manipulative play has at least two major benefits: it develops fine motor skills and introduces children to pre-maths concepts, such as quantity, order, pattern, position and sequence."

• Opportunities for manipulative play can be found in everything from a puzzle to a container full of different sized buttons.

Benefits Of Manipulative Play

Aside from the above, manipulative play helps children develop:

  • hand–eye coordination
  • spatial skills
  • memory and concentration
  • visual perception: of colour, pattern and detail
  • the ability to match size and shape.

Dramatic Play & Manipulative Play

When children play with family figures in a miniature house, or create a city out of blocks, they are engaging in both manipulative and dramatic play.

Dramatic play is important because it helps develop social and language skills; allows the expression of positive and negative feelings; teaches children to negotiate, take turns and resolve conflict; and helps children make sense of the world.

What Is Seriating?

When you read about manipulative play, you're likely to come across the term 'seriating'. To seriate means "to arrange in a series".

Some examples of seriation might be;

  • arranging blocks from longest to shortest
  • mixing paint to produce increasingly light shades of a colour
  • playing pitches on a xylophone from low to high

Ideas For Manipulative Play

Putting together puzzles: jigsaws, inset boards, locks and latches, knobbed (for very young children)
Sorting and matching: buttons, bottle tops, shells, seeds, screws etc. (Some of these are choking hazards; make sure young children are supervised.)
Sorting shapes on a geometric shapes board
Performing seriation: sorting board (closed ring), graded stairs
Placing pegs in a peg board
Threading and lacing: beads, shoes
Playing 'Pound the Ball'
Manipulating clay or playdough
Playing Jenga
Connecting plastic nuts and bolts
Pushing the beads around a bead frame table
Constructing with Lego, Duplo, Mobilo  or Stickle Bricks
Shifting the beads on an abacus

Essential Equipment

Playcentre recommends the following as a minimum for early learning centres:

Storage (as appropriate)
Working surface to accommodate four children
Picture puzzles
Concept puzzles:
    (a) Basic maths – raised whole pieces, different shapes or sizes, one colour only
    (b) Fraction shapes board – raised pieces, one colour only
    (c) Geometric puzzle, containing true maths shapes (e.g. square, triangle etc.)
    (d) Graded size puzzle with pieces small to large
    (e) Mosaic board
    (f) Collection for colour/shape
    (g) Collection for size
Seriating materials: for length, area and volume
Sorting and matching materials (a collection)
Patterning materials
Peg board with suitably sized pegs
Screwing materials (a collection)
Threading materials (a collection)

The Playcentre basic equipment list


Here are some other resources for facilitating manipulative play:

For colour and/or shape matching: pebbles, leaves, shells
Posting boxes (make sure the shapes are not interchangeable in the holes)
Picture or shape dominoes
Stand up jigsaws
A set of special shapes (e.g. geometric or animal)
Hammer mosaic set with board
Geoboard with coloured elastic bands


  • Provide a range of equipment and resources.
  • Put the equipment in labelled containers, and keep it tidy.
  • Offer implements for picking things up, such as tongs, tweezers or chopsticks.

Te Whāriki & Manipulative Play

Manipulative play relates particularly to Strand 5 of Te Whāriki, which is Exploration/Mana Aotūroa.

To learn more about Te Whāriki, visit the website.

Our thanks to the Auckland Playcentre Shop for permission to use this article. Great play starts here.