Educational interventions involving physical manipulatives for improving children's learning and development: A scoping review

Elizabeth M. Byrne, Hanne Jensen, Bo Stjerne Thomsen, Paul G. Ramchandani

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Physical manipulatives (PMs) are concrete objects used during hands-on learning activities (e.g., building blocks, fraction tiles, counters), and are widely used in primary-school teaching, especially during maths instruction. This scoping review collated studies that have examined the effectiveness of educational PM interventions with pre-primary and primary-age children. A total of 102 studies met the inclusion criteria and were synthesised in the review. Most studies included a sample of children aged 4–6 years and were conducted in a school setting. They spanned 26 different countries, but almost all took place in high- or middle-income contexts, mainly in the USA. Interventions were grouped into three main learning domains: maths, literacy and science. Considerable heterogeneity was identified across the review studies in terms of the PMs and hands-on activities used (e.g., block building, shape sorting, paper folding, enactment with figurines). Evidence relating to effectiveness of the intervention programmes was synthesised, with the most promising findings identified in the maths domain. Benefits to children's spatial, literacy and science skills were also reported. Overall, however, the evidence was mixed: other studies found that PMs were not associated with learning benefits, and many were hindered by methodological shortcomings. This calls for caution when drawing conclusions about the overall effectiveness of PM interventions. Nevertheless, the findings illustrate the many ways hands-on PM activities can be incorporated into children's early learning experiences. Recommendations for further research and for using PMs in practice are made.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere3400
JournalReview of Education
Issue number2
Early online date15 May 2023
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2023


  • early learning
  • interventions
  • physical manipulatives
  • scoping review

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