You've probably heard someone make the argument that blocks can be considered a manipulative since they help children develop their fine motor skills. While that is a valid point, blocks should not be categorized as a manipulative. Blocks and manipulatives each serve a unique purpose in the classroom and present varying learning opportunities for children. One cannot replace the other, so it's important that you have both available for children to play with in your classroom.
Blocks cover concepts in almost every developmental domain: social and emotional, math, science, and language and literacy. They encourage play and teach children to share and work together, while also teaching them new vocabulary words, shapes, patterns, and numbers. Yes, blocks help children develop fine motor skills, but they have a much more encompassing purpose in the classroom.
Block play includes a variety of accessories and features blocks of various sizes, colors, and materials. Here are a few examples of some great block play items you can include in your classroom or early care environment:
Manipulatives are fairly specific in the developmental domains they cover and are geared toward teaching individual concepts. The primary purpose of manipulatives in the classroom is to help children develop fine motor skills and learn math concepts. Manipulatives ultimately help children develop the muscle control they need to be able to eat with a fork or hold a pencil and write.
Manipulatives can include tangrams, lacing beads, pegboards, puzzles, LEGO®/Duplo® sets, Magna-Tiles® sets, and similar items. Remember, things that connect should be considered manipulatives—not blocks. Here are a few examples of creative manipulatives that are great for children to play with in the classroom:
So, What's the Verdict?
In short, blocks help children learn and develop a variety of skills, including fine motor development, while manipulatives play a more focused role in helping children develop their fine motor skills. Manipulatives can be used as supplements to enhance the block center, but it's important that centers have actual blocks for children to play with. Be sure to encourage children to play with items from both categories to ensure that children gain all of the skills they need.