Imaginative Play and Using Manipulatives with the Young Homeschooled Child


Asalaam ‘Alaikum:

Today I am going to talk about keeping your younger child busy with imaginative play and manipulatives. Insha’Allah this will give you more than a few ideas.


Children love to use their imagination. Provide your child with as many opportunities and tools to use their imagination. You would be surprised at how long their imagination can keep them busy, masha’Allah! One book that I purchased a few years ago – and intend to pull it out to use this year with my preschooler is:

Literacy Play: Over 300 Dramatic Play Activities that Teach Pre-Reading Skills by Amy Cox.

I love this book and think that it will be a great addition not only to my younger child’s playing skills – but I think it will bring more interest to playtime with her older siblings as well. Here are a few ways that I try to spark my childrens’ imagination:

Fun in a tent:

  • Make your child a tent somewhere near where you are doing school work. If you are outside, set up a tent there. You don’t need any expensive materials – a sheet or two will do just fine. I’ve also used large clips from the office supply store to attach the tent to other things (a shelf or chair or the side of the house). You could just set up the tent between two kitchen chairs. It doesn’t need to be fancy – your child will love it. Allow them to do their own “school work” inside the tent or suggest that they go in their tent and read.

Kitchen Fun:

  • Girls love kitchen play things. We have pretend food items and we really love those made by Melissa and Doug. On a side note – I should mention that a local store sends us out $10 gift certificates that we can use in their store during different holidays. There is no limit to how much you need to spend. We have gone there several times and purchased Melissa and Doug play food (that is velcroed together so you can pretend to cut it) which is normally $19.99 but was on sale for $13.00. After I used my gift certificate, I only had to pay $3.00 plus tax. Not bad.
  • I also found a nice wooden kitchen (originally $150 USD) at a resale shop. People hadn’t purchased it yet because some kid colored with a permanent marker all over it. Needless to say, you can get permanent marker out with nail polish remover. I know, it smells – but it works (and I didn’t have to use a lot)! In the end, I was able to purchase the kitchen for $3.00 – I’m not kidding. The kids love to use this kitchen a lot – they put play food out as if they are having a picnic. They pretend to bake cookies in the oven. If your child is bored and can’t think of something to do – simply suggest that they make you and your homeschooling kiddos some cookies in the oven or make lunch for you. They will gladly do this and it will keep them busy!


Role Playing:

  • Girls love to play with dolls and stuffed animals. Often you can suggest that your child play with their dolls and it will keep them quite busy. Sometimes girls will just pretend to take care of “their baby”. Other times, you might need to make a few suggestions:
  • Your child can pretend to play doctor – and their stuffed animals are their patients.
  • Your child can pretend that they own a store – and the stuffed animals are their customers.
  • Your child can pretend they are a librarian – and help their stuffed animals find good books.
  • Kids love to play with boxes. They really use their imagination there. If you don’t have boxes, you can often also use a simple kitchen chair or two. My youngest has:
  • Made an airplane and pretended to fly from location to location with her stuffed animal passengers.
  • Made a train with attached boxes (she tied scarves between the boxes) and traveled the world with her stuffed animals as passengers. She even wore a train conductor’s hat and blew a whistle.
  • Made a car and traveled the countryside with her stuffed animals. You can even help your child make a steering wheel out of a box and an attached paper plate.
  • My youngest loves to play with her doll house. I’ve mentioned that before in a previous post. She will often take everything off the shelves and start arranging “her house”. She loves it, masha’Allah and it keeps her busy.
  • Kids love to play dress-up. Not only girls – but boys love this too. What is the secret to finding great dress-up clothes? Resale shops. You can go and purchase “ready made” outfits but they are way too expensive. Now, for girls – it is a little easier. I just buy dresses that are a few sizes too big for them at the resale shop – also hats and bonnets and purses. I have easily found nice dresses for about $1 USD. You can also buy a satin sheet and make it into a cape for your child (if you are crafty). For boys, I always see cowboy hats, fireman hats and tools with tool belts in the resale shops (my youngest actually has one – she loves boy stuff).
  • We’ve also found a lot of brand-new looking uniforms like the nurses wear (scrubs). I found the smallest size I could and gave it to the girls to play with. They don’t care that it is big – remember when you were younger and walked around in your parent’s shoes? They just don’t care. Also, I found at a local school supply store a stethoscope – it was only $1 USD. I don’t always let them play with it – they have a plastic pretend one to use. However, sometimes I will let my youngest “examine” me while I am busy with the other kiddos doing school work.
  • You could also make a craft where your child makes a crown – and then later they can use their imagination to be a king or queen. I’ve heard in the past that there are actually books out there that teach you how to make different hats from history with paper. You could easily do this as an activity and then let your child pretend they are from that time in history. At this point it doesn’t really matter that they know anything about that time in history – it is just a matter of using the imagination.
  • Another craft idea is to have your child make a mask. They could make one out of a cardboard box (if it is big enough to fit over their head) – they could make one out of a paper grocery bag – or they could make one out of a paper plate. Either way, let them decorate their mask and then allow them to pretend – pretend – pretend! Just recently my older kiddo made a robot mask out of a cardboard box for her sister. Now, whenever the youngest gets a chance she runs around pretending to be a robot.
  • Puppets are another way for your children to use their imagination. You can either purchase some – sew some – or even make some from those brown sandwich sacks. I even purchased an adjustable shower rod (the kind that is plastic and holds up your shower curtain). You can put the rod in the hallway and hang a sheet over it. Then, have your child stand behind the curtain and play with their puppets. They absolutely love it.


I found out early how useful using manipulatives can be in homeschooling. You can teach your children so many things with them, not only math – but many important, early learning skills can be taught with them, masha’Allah.

First of all, over the years we have gathered all kinds of manipulative materials in our homeschool:

– buttons
– 1 gram counters
– colored counting chips
– peg boards
– geoboards
– pattern blocks
– legos
– pompoms
– dominoes
– counting bears
– small beads
– large lacing beads
– unifix cubes
– snap cubes
– geoboards
– marbles

In the early days, some of these materials were supplied by our school – now they ask that they be returned to them. However, I have found many of these items on sale – VERY CHEAP – at resale shops. You can also gather your own manipulatives – things like bottle caps, colored paperclips, beans, etc. You will definitely hear more about manipulatives when I talk about Montessori materials, insha’Allah.

For a much younger child – manipulatives seem amazing and wonderful. My youngest can play for quite a while with manipulatives – either following directions or in self-directed play. Once, she opened up our box of unifix cubes. She found the direction booklet inside the box. She doesn’t read yet – so she looked at the pictures and imitated what she say. In the booklet it was teaching children to measure things using unifix cubes. It showed a picture of a person measuring their foot with the cubes. So, she started out measuring her foot – and then my foot and then she moved on to measuring other things in the house. She kept herself occupied for a long time this way, masha’Allah.

I purchased a set or two of plastic bowls from the dollar store (they came in sets of four). We use them for different things – but one thing my youngest loves to do is to move manipulatives around in the bowls. She will take a spoon and scoop out marbles from a container into the bowls. Then, she happily announces that she has made ice cream for everyone. I will definitely talk more about this during the Montessori materials, insha’Allah.

You can easily turn a simple book and manipulatives into a huge learning session with your child. One day I took out a book that was teaching colors. I then pulled out our huge plastic lacing beads. As I read the story, it taught her the names of different colors. As she learned a color, I told her to take out of the box all the beads that had the same color and put them in a pile. She loved it. We did this until we finished all the colors in the book. Now, all I have to do is take the book out and point to a color and ask her to grab all the beads with that color. You can do this type of activity with snap cubes, unifix cubes, pattern blocks and anything else you can find in many different colors. I sometimes do this activity using smaller beads or pattern blocks and have her sort the items – placing them in different bowls. In this way, you are teaching your child sorting. You can have your child sort by color and also by shape.

For unifix cubes and snap cubes, you can simply put them out and have your child play with them however they want. They love to take them apart and to put them back together again. You could also have your child measure things around the room with the cubes. You can also easily have your child sort them by color. Just place the cubes in front of your child along with bowls to sort them in. Have them put them – separated by color – into the bowls.

If you have a primary balance around the house – you can have your child weigh different objects. Have them put, for example, a pencil in one side of the balance and then have them put something like unifix cubes, gram cubes or marbles in the other side until it is balanced. They will have a lot of fun with this.

With pattern blocks, children love to use them in unguided play. You may have to teach them “how to do it” first – but once they get the hang of it – they will come up with some pretty amazing designs all by themselves. There are also many books available that have pictures in them for use with pattern blocks. So, one picture might be a house that is made of shapes and your child needs to place the different pattern blocks to complete the picture. One book that I like is entitled “Patternables” by Learning Resources. There are also games / box sets that you can purchase that have both the pattern blocks and the pattern sheets in the set. There are several of these types of sets found here. You can also use pattern blocks for learning sorting. You can have your child sort the blocks by color as well as by shape.

One day my husband left his dominoes within reach of our little one – that was the last time he saw his domino set. She loves to take out the dominoes and place them in straight lines. She also likes to line them standing up to knock them over. I don’t particularly understand her fascination with these – but I have added to her set of dominoes to include wooden ones and another new set for herself. She keeps herself quite busy using these, masha’Allah. And, at some point she will actually understand how “to use them properly.”

Using a picture – you can teach your child directional words. For example, if you have a picture of a house on a piece of paper – you can tell your child to put the cube on top of the house. Then, you can have your child put the cube next to the house – and so on.

To teach your child sequencing skills, you can put a pattern of pattern blocks, lacing beads or any other manipulative. For example, put a red cube then a blue cube then a red cube then a blue cube. Teach your child to make the same pattern with their own cubes. There are companies that sell strips that show your child how to make patterns with counting bears, etc. but you can easily make the pattern for your child – have them mimic the pattern while you teach your other children and when they are finished you can make another pattern. You don’t always have to buy more materials. If it is easier for you, you can easily print off strips of patterns. In Powerpoint – or even offline with a marker – you can make strips of paper with circles or dots of color in a pattern. Make the circles large enough that your child can place their manipulatives in the circles. If you do this – it will lessen the amount of interruption you have during homeschool. You give your child the strips and teach them how to use them – then when they are finished they will want to show you what they have done. That’s it.

I found a brand new set of five geoboards at the local resale shop – for only 69 cents USD. I couldn’t resist. I then purchased a package of colored rubber bands (the rubber bands sold with the boards were terrible and broke easily). I bought these to use for math with the older children but finally found out how useful it was to use with my younger child. I wouldn’t recommend using these with children who put things in their mouths – but when they are past that stage – they really enjoy making patterns with the rubber bands on the geoboards.

Your child can also have fun trying to aim manipulatives into boxes, baskets, etc. Have them stand back from a box (for example) and then have them try to see how many manipulatives they can get into the box – throwing one at a time. You can also use a deck of cards for this as well.

Insha’Allah I will share more ideas with you in a later post.

Asalaam’ Alaikum,

Sumayyah Umm SAA

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