The ancient civilizations of Southwest Asia used counting boards – wooden or clay trays covered in a thin layer of sand. These were used to tally inventory or whatever else they needed to count.
750 BC - 1450
The ancient Romans created the first Abacus based on a counting board. This was made of beans or stones which moved in grooves in sand or on tables of wood, stone, or metal.
Mayan and Aztecs
250 BC - 990
The Mayans and the Aztecs both had counting devices that were made of corn kernels strung on string or wires that were stretched across a wooden frame.
221 BC - 1370
The Chinese used the abacus for counting.
1438 - 1533
The Incas also had their own counting tool, which was made out of knotted strings called quipu.
Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi
Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi advocated ‘hands-on-learning’. He asserted that students need to learn through their senses and through physical activity. He proposed ideas such an integrated curriculum, the development of the whole child and "Hand, Head, Heart"
1800 - 1900
The late 1800s saw the invention of the first true manipulative-maneuverable objects that appeal to several different senses and are specifically designed for teaching mathematical concepts.
In 1837, the German educator Friedrich Froebel introduced the world’s first kindergarten. He designed called educational toys as Froebel Gifts or Frobelgaben, which included geometric building blocks and pattern activity blocks.
Jean Piaget specified stages of cognitive development in children, stressing the importance of “concrete operations” in the primary stages of knowledge formation.
In the early 1900s, Italian educator Maria Montessori continued with the idea that manipulatives are important to education. She founded a network of schools based on the education of the senses. She expanded the use of these tools with the belief that their use would enable children to learn through personal investigation and exploration.