Education Letter to the Editor

Manipulatives Are Tools, Not ‘Learning Toys’

May 15, 2007 1 min read

To the Editor:

I read with interest your article “Studies Find That Use of Learning Toys Can Backfire” (April 25, 2007), and commend Education Week for providing a forum to address the research imperative of “how and when manipulatives should be used,” to quote the Northwestern University psychologist David H. Uttal, whose study on manipulatives is discussed in your piece.

While significant research supports the effectiveness of manipulatives in building student understanding, it is important to continue to study their impact on learning. As the director of mathematics at a company dedicated to providing teachers with standards-based, hands-on instructional programs and resources, I offer a critical distinction helpful to this inquiry: Manipulatives are not learning toys.

Learning toys advance children’s knowledge as a byproduct of play, but are first and foremost toys. In contrast, manipulatives are learning tools that support purposeful classroom mathematics instruction, be it teacher-led or student-directed. Students do not learn math simply by being exposed to physical objects. Rather, learning results from how these materials are used by teachers and students to encourage discovery and understanding. This applies equally to textbooks, software, and manipulatives.

The effectiveness of any instructional approach or resource is contingent on teachers who model, monitor, and assess what students know and can do. Proper teacher-training and professional development can have a significant impact on student performance outcomes, and we applaud the National Mathematics Advisory Panel’s recognition of this as a major area of its focus.

Sara Delano Moore

Director of Mathematics and Science


Vernon Hills, Ill.

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2007 edition of Education Week as Manipulatives Are Tools, Not ‘Learning Toys’