Play or Productive?

The Controversy of Manipulatives

What are manipulatives?

“Manipulatives are concrete objects used to help students understand abstract concepts (McNeil & Jarvin, 2007, p. 310).

The Debate

Some researchers suggest that manipulatives facilitate learning while others argue that manipulatives are just play.


  • Help students draw on real world knowledge
  • Physical action benefits memory and understanding
  • Manipulatives crucial to certain populations
  • Used to help students understand how numbers relate to one another instead of memorizing a counting sequence
  • Provide students with additional resource more likely to perform at optimal levels (McNeil & Jarvin, 2007)
  • "Consensus is that experience with materials helps provide a strong basis for understanding" (Moser, 1986 p.8)


  • “Students just want to play” (Anderson, 1976 p 18).
  • Teachers stray away from their use due to administration pressure to get back to the basics and “play is wasted time.” (Anderson, 1976 p 18).
  • McNeil and Jarvin 2007, believe that manipulatives that are highly familiar in non-school contexts lead students to focus on having fun at the expense of deep learning and may also make dual representation more difficult” (p314).

Personally, I find that manipulatives themselves are beneficial to many and crucial to certain populations. However, teachers may fail to use manipulatives effectively. Manipulatives don't mean success. They are only beneficial if teachers embrace them and use them properly. A classroom needs to emphasize hands on learning. Teachers must take additional time to, “build explicit bridges between informal understanding that children construct when they use manipulatives and the formal symbolic representations of the concepts” (McNeil & Jarvin, 2007).

How Do We Learn

Standard 4 Teachers Facilitate Learning for Their Students

Teachers know how students think and learn. Teachers understand the influences that affect individual student learning (development, culture, language proficiency, etc.) and differentiate their instruction accordingly. Teachers keep abreast of evolving research about student learning. They adapt resources to address the strengths and weaknesses of their students (NC Professional Teaching Standards).