Why Math Manipulatives?
Math manipulatives are small objects that help with teaching math. They are useful tools for teachers and students. They provide a hands-on way in which to explore and learn. When children are using these materials in physical ways, they are learning differently than they are when they are simply listening or watching a lesson. This tactile learning builds a deeper, personal understanding of math concepts.
Math manipulatives make math FUN! Children of all ages enjoy using these concrete tools to make sense of the problems they are given. They especially help our younger learners who are learning new math concepts for the first time. A relationship is built when shown visually how to solve problems and given opportunities to “try” something using math manipulatives. With repeated practice and “play” with manipulatives, math fluency develops.
As a teacher with many years experience incorporating math manipulatives into my lessons, I appreciate how useful they are in helping me teach different math concepts. Many items can be used in multiple ways. I enjoy watching children have “lightbulb” moments when they finally understand a concept thanks to the tools they are using. I am ecstatic when children are exploring with a tub of manipulatives and they discover something new, a pattern, or way of use.
How to Use Math Manipulatives
I use math manipulatives for almost every math lesson I teach. When planning my lessons, I think of ways that the concepts can be taught using visuals, as well as orally or on a chart. I prep tools ahead of time so they are ready for our lessons. I vary the tools in order for students to get practice using different types. During our lessons, math manipulatives are used usually during or after the initial lesson is taught. I will explain a concept, give examples on a chart, practice orally, and demonstrate with math manipulatives. Students use those manipulatives to practice the concept or solve a problem.
Examples of Use
- When teaching basic addition, I use magnetic counters that can be used on the whiteboard to illustrate a problem (i.e. 2+5=7). Students use two-sided counting chips to solve another similar problem at the carpet.
- When teaching counting or identifying numbers to 100, I use a large 100’s chart and a pointer. We take turns pointing to the numbers as we practice counting by 1’s, 2’s, 5’s, and 10’s. Students use small 100’s charts to point and follow along as we count or they locate different numbers given orally.
- When teaching geometric solids, I use large foam 3D shapes that I can hold and point out its features. Students use smaller similar shapes to find those same features, to locate similar objects in the scavenger hunt around the class, and use them to create structures.
- When teaching measurement, I use many non-standard units, such as cubes, to illustrate how long, tall, wide something is. Students use the cubes to compare and measure with the cubes around the classroom (i.e. my arm is 20 cubes long).
During Independent & Group Work
Students use math manipulatives at their workspace to completed their work. We have math centers set up that incorporate manipulatives to use during their work. I also give students “free time” to grab a bin of math manipulatives to explore on their own or in small groups. This is where some of the most amazing findings happen. I occasionally put a problem on the board for students to complete with a math bin of their choosing. This encourages “real world” problem solving when they must think of the most applicable tool and try different ones out through trial and error.
Examples of Use
- Before we start a lesson, students are given time to explore the tub of math manipulatives for that day. I limit my suggestions as to what they should do with them, as I want to encourage creativity and mathematical thinking.
- During “free time” or math centers, I will put out a basket containing around 20, 50, or 100 small items depending and ask students to complete a task. The task could be “make groups and count to find out how many objects you have” or something that encourages thinking and problem solving.
- I will put small tubs together with manipulatives and ask students to explore, create, or show me something with it. It could be a tub of pattern blocks and the instructions “use all of the blocks to create a picture” or a geoboard and the instructions “show me a picture using 8 elastic bands”.
Organizing Math Manipulatives
I have tubs, baskets, and containers full of math manipulatives in our math area, as well as on our math supply shelf. I use a different bin or tub to hold each type of manipulative. I suggest labeling each bin or container with a name and/or picture on it. I suggest taking photos of your students using each manipulative correctly and attaching that to the bin as an example to students.
Try to have a designated place for each type of manipulative. Have them in a place that is accessible and ready for use. Using a large storage area that holds bins for those types you use often is helpful. Teach students where they can find each type and show them how to use them and put them away properly. This will help with clean up and maintain organization.
Types of Math Manipulatives for Primary
There are many types of math manipulatives available to teachers. Many can be used in multiple ways. It’s a good idea to have a variety of types available in your school or ready in your classroom to help with teaching the variety of math concepts. Below I have categorized them into must-have (those you will use often and for many things) and useful (those that you may not use everyday but are very helpful in teaching concepts. I have used all of the manipulatives provided below and I recommend them for primary teachers (with Amazon Affiliate links).
Dice are a great tool to have on hand for math games and activities. There are many types available today, such as these dice in many colors. There are also different sized dice available, such as these large foam dice. Jumbo dice are great for rolling during a class game or for “flashing” to kids to have them call out the number shown. I suggest putting pairs of dice into small clear containers that students can quickly grab and shake while playing games. My favorite type of dice for teaching addition and playing games are the dice in dice.
Playing cards make useful math tools because they have numbers on them. They can be used to teach addition and subtraction through games like addition “war” and subtraction “war”. Playing cards, like these, come in traditional decks that you can find at most stores or dollar stores. Buying them in bulk playing card sets and having a deck for each student is helpful. Teachers would benefit from a set of jumbo playing cards to use for lessons and demonstrations as they provide a large visual for kids.
Unifix or Snap Cubes
Unifix cubes are the colored cubes that connect in one way and snap cubes are colored cubes that can connect in different ways. Both can be used in many ways to teach many math concepts, such as patterning, place value, and measurement. Snap cubes are one of the most used math manipulatives. They visually demonstrate many number concepts, such as counting, grouping, adding, and taking away. Children love snapping the cubes together to make number “trains”.
Another must-have manipulative are the two-color (red and yellow) counters. They have many uses and help little learners learn to count, make patterns, add, and subtract. They are an essential tool for teaching addition that I use frequently. Students use them for independent practice and help in solving addition and subtraction problems. I keep sets of 20 these colored counters in small containers students to use when needed. This set of ten frames with magnetic counters would be great for many number concepts.
Hundreds charts are important for teaching children to count to 100 in multiple ways. They are visual representations of numbers in order and are filled with patterns that children should be encouraged to find. Hundreds charts are important for whole-class lessons, independent practice, and games. My most used anchor chart on my wall is a hundreds chart, similar to this. We use these durable hundreds boards frequently. I also recommend having a mini hundreds chart visible on student work-spaces. These name plates also have a ruler, number line, and addition table on them.
Number lines are important for many number concepts, such as counting, sequencing, and number recognition. Students can be taught how to solve addition and subtraction problems by jumping up or down the number line. Provide students with their own number line, such as these personal number lines. Use a large number line to display on a bulletin board for class demonstrations. A human number line can be created on the floor with tape and used for practice and games, like the Human Number Line Game explained here.
Pattern blocks are small shaped blocks that can be used in multiple ways. They make great learning tools because they are consistent in shape and color. They work for teaching sorting, patterning, fractions, geometry, and more. They promote creativity and encourage students to create unique designs. I keep pattern blocks in a few large tubs for students to grab and explore with during math centers. Sets like the one below are available that include activity cards for students to complete.
Place Value Blocks
Place value blocks are very helpful in teaching counting, number concepts, double-digit addition and subtraction. Place value concepts are more difficult to grasp and using these concrete manipulatives helps build understanding. I suggest have a large bin of of place value blocks similar to those below with enough for each student to represent the numbers you are learning. The magnetic set would be helpful for whole class demonstrations on a whiteboard. If you are teaching PreK or Kindergarten, consider introducing place value during calendar time with this counting pocket chart and straws.
Having actual geometric solids that can be held helps children learn what 3D shapes are and their features. I suggest creating an anchor chart with 3D shapes listed and recording the properties of each together. These large geometic solids would make good models for teacher’s lessons. Give students their own shapes to hold and feel during lessons. These clear geometric solids are see through to help children visualize its features and they have removable bases so students can compare 2D and 3D shapes. How cool is that? Plus geometric solids make for great exploration where towers and castles and all sorts of structures can be built. Try these foam ones for a math center.
Dominoes are a fun math manipulative to have available for games and other activities, such as matching numbers together. There are endless options for use, but my favorite for little learners is to use them to practice addition and subtraction. Give students a small pile of dominoes and have them record a number sentence and solve by counting. You can find dominoes at most dollar stores, but I love these colored dominoes for the classroom.
Magnetic numbers are great to have in a math center for children to play with. Children love to stick magnets on anything! They are helpful during lessons when counting, ordering, and number identification is taught. You can find plastic ones, foam ones, and wooden ones and they are available at most dollar stores and teacher supply stores. I like these foam magnetic numbers because they make less noise when they are played with or fall on the ground. These jumbo magnetic numbers would be helpful for teachers during lessons.
Shape counters are fun to use in a math center for little learners. Encourage them to sort the shapes by color, size, type, and create different patterns with them. They are also great for teaching beginning addition and subtraction (i.e. I have five bears and I take one bear away). Shape counters come in many fun shapes, such as bear counters, animal counters, bug counters, and transportation counters.
Large Teaching Clock & Mini Clocks
When teaching concepts of time and the analog clock, using a large demo clock is a valuable tool. I love this clock because as you move the minute hand around the hour hand moves appropriately, which helps with teaching the placement of the hands. It also shows the 12 hours and the minutes around the outside. Encourage children to count by fives as the minute hand moves around the clock to learn that there are 60 minutes in one rotation of the hour hand. Provide children with their own small clocks, such as these, to practice with. To reinforce these skills, having a clock puzzle available is helpful.
Geoboards are great for building shapes and learning about different geometry concepts. They make a great math center for children to explore. You could give children pictures to copy or specific tasks to complete with a geoboard. Teaching proper care and safety with the elastic bands is important. Check out this set of small plastic geoboards.
Cuisenaire rods are brand new to me. I have seen them stashed away in the math supply room and I have only recently used them in my classroom. They encourage plenty of creative thought and teach a ton of concepts, such as fractions, geometry, and counting. Each size is a different color which is pretty cool. Cuisenaire rods come in plastic, like these, or wood, like these. I like to encourage students to explore with a bin of rods and see what they come up with.
Play Money & Cash Register
Teaching financial literacy at an early age is important. Encouraging children to shop at a class made store and exchange items for money. Use a cash register like this and kid wallets like this to hold the pretend money. Play money games where coins and bills are used. Teach lessons and have children practice sorting coins, ordering coins by size and quantity, and creating different quantities. This deluxe coins & bills set includes tons of play money for all your activities.
Bucket balances are helpful tools in comparing different objects and volumes of liquid. In primary grades, we often use them to observe and estimate which of two objects is the heaviest. I like this balance scale because items can be easily put in and taken out by children during their exploration.
Mini Whiteboards & Markers
Mini whiteboards are amazing items that I use daily. I store a class set of boards, markers, and erasers in a basket at the carpet with our other math items. They make those quick moments when you want students to record their findings or solve a problem easy. We use ours daily during our number of the day activities (read HERE). Check out this class pack of whiteboards to go along with my go-to dry erase markers that last the longest (these Expo markers).
Where to Buy Math Manipulatives
While teacher supply stores have great quality math manipulatives, they are often expensive. If you can get your school to fund your classroom supply, then go this route. Lakeshore Learning has endless types and varieties of manipulatives and wonderful games that would fulfill your needs.
I suggest buying the majority of your items when they go on sale or when you can purchase them at affordable prices through Amazon. Each type of manipulative listed above is linked to Amazon to help you create your classroom wishlist. You can sign up for Amazon Prime and get all of your materials quickly, no matter what the weight of your package. Awesome! Make sure to enter the Math Manipulatives Every Classroom Should Have GIVEAWAY below.
There are many places to purchase math manipulatives. Get creative and have fun searching for materials in your home or find them for cheap at the dollar store. Read about free and affordable math manipulatives from Stir the Wonder.
Teachers Pay Teachers is another wonderful option for finding math resources, games, centers, and printable manipulatives for your classroom.
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