What Are Manipulative Toys?

Written By: Psychologist Natasha Tanic

Children learn about the world around them through hands-on experiences.

The best way to teach children about everyday objects is to allow them to use these objects.

Such play in which a child uses their hands or feet to manipulate objects is known as manipulative play or functional play.

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Manipulative toys involve arts and crafts items, building blocks and bricks, shape sorters, toy animals, pretend food, dolls, construction sets, sorting toys, different tools and items-use (scissors, buttons, clothes, etc.), balls, food items (dry pasta), a variety of household pieces and bits, and many other types of toys.

Manipulative Toys Developmental Benefits

Manipulative play supports your child’s development and learning in many ways.

Manipulative toys can:

  • Enhance coordination
  • Promote the development of fine and gross motor skills
  • Improve hand-eye coordination
  • Boost visual discrimination
  • Encourage recognition and discrimination of colors, shapes, and textures
  • Boost creativity
  • Provide myriad opportunities for kids to practice their problem-solving skills
  • Encourage classification and pattern recognition
  • Improve attention and the ability to follow directions

Top Three Manipulative Toy Sets

Our top pick: LEGO DUPLO My First Number Train – it’s fun, affordable and it can help with learning numbers!

Second place: Magformers Challenger Set (112 pieces) – if you’re looking for something that’s not a LEGO.

Third place: Schleich Farm World Stable with Horses and Accessories 

The Best Toys for Early Manipulative Play

In the earliest stages of development, your child needs to learn how to use their hands and start practicing fine motor skills such as reach, grasp, release, pincer grasp, and bilateral hand use.

These skills are necessary for later school performance and the development of other skills that are essential for day-to-day activities.

Manipulative Toys that Encourage Reach, Grasp, and Release Motor Skills

Kids start developing basic fine motor skills at a very early age.

To help your infant practice reach, grasp, and release motor skills, provide blocks of different shapes, colors, and textures, shape sorters, stacking cups, nesting toys, containers, pots, and pans, and any other toy that your little one shows interest in.

Young kids enjoy grasping toys and releasing them.

Many parents get upset with their toddlers throwing toys, not knowing that releasing or throwing a toy is a new skill that emerges between 18 months and three years.

By throwing a toy, your child practices their release skills (opens the fingers and lets go of a toy) and hand-eye coordination (throws or releases the toy).

A pincer grasp (coordinating a thumb and index finger to pick up small objects) is an essential developmental milestone.

It allows your child to perform necessary daily living activities such as dressing (grasping buttons, laces, and zips), eating with cutlery, brushing teeth, etc.

The pincer grasp is also an essential aspect of fine motor development that enables writing, drawing, and other school-related skills.

Provide various small items such as pom-poms, stickers, large buttons, and crayons to help your child with her pincer grasp.

Allow your little one to explore these items under your supervision.

Encourage play with balls, balloons, bath toys, and other items of different sizes and textures to encourage bilateral hand use (using two hands together to grasp and hold objects).

Also, provide plastic necklaces, hairbrushes, boxes, and other items.

The Best Manipulative Toys for Preschoolers

Preschoolers are very mobile and increasingly independent. They can jump, run, hop, throw, kick, and do a somersault with ease and confidence.

Most preschoolers can use a fork and spoon and take care of their personal needs independently.

And most preschool age kids can stack ten or more blocks, copy a circle, triangle, and square, and draw a person with body parts.

Preschoolers love construction play with a variety of materials and items.

Encourage construction play that involves manipulating objects to create something new such as molding, stacking, sticking, or taking things apart.

The best manipulative toys at this stage of development include:

  • LEGO and other sets for construction and building
  • Transportation toys
  • Blocks
  • Modeling tools
  • Play-dough and modeling clay
  • Chalks
  • Pom-poms
  • Stickers
  • Magnetic toys
  • Pegs and pegboards
  • Puzzles
  • Animal and food props
  • Balls
  • Wheeled toys

Manipulative toys for preschoolers help boost fine and gross motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

They also promote imaginative thinking, and encourage your child to practice turn-taking and collaboration.

These toys also teach persistence and determination and to promote your child to think out of the box.

Manipulative Toys for School-Age Children

School-age kids are keen learners. They can express their feelings and ideas, solve problems, and perform most self-care tasks independently. Their self-control and confidence grow.

Your child’s large muscle movements are becoming more coordinated, allowing him to perform combined movements such as dancing to music, jumping, running, and kicking a ball.

Also, school-age kids become more skillful at writing and drawing as their fine motor skills improve.

To encourage development at this stage, provide a variety of toys and play opportunities, including the following:

Technology and Video Games: While many parents are anxious about their kids’ screen time, studies show that there are benefits to using technology for learning and development.

Technology and gaming can help kids learn essential skills such as creative thinking and problem-solving.

It can also boost memory and coordination, improve fine motor and hand-eye coordination, and improve their social skills.

Nevertheless, for kids older than two years, it’s always good to limit screen time to a maximum of one hour of screen time a day.

Arts and Crafts: Engaging in art and craft activities can help your child develop imagination and creativity, fine motor skills, planning and organization, language, and emotional expression.

Provide arts and crafts materials like crayons, markers, paints, textiles, glitter, pom poms, glue, play-dough, strings, pipe cleaners, and similar items.

Puzzles: Provide puzzles to enhance your child’s fine and gross motor skills and pattern recognition.

Puzzles also improve memory, attention span, problem-solving skills, and impulse control.

LEGO and Construction Sets: Construction toys improve focus and concentration, teach patience, foster creative thinking, and enhance fine motor skills.

LEGO and other construction sets boost spatial awareness, spark creativity and imagination, foster problem-solving, and boost your child’s confidence.


During their development, kids gradually gain independence in learning.

Encourage your child to use manipulative toys that will help them learn how to use everyday objects, foster motor skills development, promote cognitive development, and teach them essential social skills.

To support their development, nurture your child’s curiosity and help them develop an interest in learning.

Focus on your child’s interests and emphasize their strengths.


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