History of Manipulative Media

This timeline spans from the manipulatives used during the Roman Empire until the early 1980s featuring the forerunners of hands-on learning.


Roman Empire

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.

Southwest Asia

750 BC - 1450

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.

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.

Chinese Civilization

221 BC - 1370

The Chinese used the abacus for counting.

Inca Empire

1438 - 1533

The Incas also had their own counting tool, which was made out of knotted strings called quipu.

Late 1800s

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.

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"

Friedrich Froebel


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


Jean Piaget specified stages of cognitive development in children, stressing the importance of “concrete operations” in the primary stages of knowledge formation.

Maria Montessori


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.