What Math Manipulatives Do You Really Need?

I often get asked about math manipulatives from educators.

  • Do you really need all those math manipulatives?

  • Where do you put them?

  • How do you keep the students from just playing with them?


I always answer with a resounding yes! to needing math manipulatives. If you have read my other blog posts, you know the research from Jerome Bruner on concrete-pictorial-abstract. He found that students need that concrete experience to make sense of new concepts. Their hands are moving while their minds are processing.


Think of a new concept you may have to learn like putting together a robot or changing a tire. While reading about it can be helpful, seeing it and even experiencing it helps the concept to make more sense. It provides more of a context for what's actually happening. In fact, Jerome Bruner wasn't the only one who found this. A popular quote from Maria Montessori says, "What the hand does, the mind remembers."


Choosing what manipulatives you want in your math program can be a lofty goal. Often textbooks come with their own list, but these can be rather costly. I've encouraged educators to think about their must haves. What are the tools that you must have in your curriculum? What are the things you will use most often? This can be a great way to consider what you actually need, especially if you are on a budget. (And don't forget all those resale pages on Facebook! I buy a lot of used manipulatives for SUPER cheap.)

I have shared several of my favorite manipulatives on my Video Library Page. These videos are currently free and highlight the items that I would really want to have in my classroom.


You may also see these lists I have created for you organized by my Must Haves and things that are Nice to Have. Click on the link below to download your own copy of each list. While this isn't specific to any particular program, it highlights the most common manipulatives.


The final thing to consider is how to store them and actually use them within a classroom setting. (I will talk more about distance learning in a minute.) Due to the new guidelines from the CDC, most students will probably need their own individual manipulative kit. Consider which manipulatives lend themselves to this idea like base ten blocks (make picture copies for hundreds and thousands), counters, connecting cubes, and fraction sets. Things that can't be placed in an individual kit may have to be used as a learning station for students to use individually.

If we ever get back to sharing, I like to put manipulatives in caddies for table groups. This is important, because so much time can be taken going to the cabinet/closet, getting the materials and then passing them out. I don't have every single manipulative in the caddy. I rotate the resources as we go through each unit or chapter. Having them readily available is vital to save time and encourage students to use them on their own.


A key that often gets overlooked is how to train students to use math manipulatives. In my classroom, math manipulatives are also available for exploration during free play or indoor recess. Sometimes when I use them in math class, students struggle to make the transition from toy to tool.


In my Day Zero: The First 5 Math Lessons, I have lesson plans training students to establish norms for using manipulatives during math time. This includes practicing the right way to use them and building time for students to first explore and play before actually using them as tools. I will never forget the time I used colorful overhead counters to teach arrays to 3rd graders in New York. This school had a lot of discipline problems and found manipulatives led to misbehavior. We used them in our lesson and first used them to make beautiful pictures. They had a blast and then used them the right way with the remaining time. You can access a download of this document in my SHOP or as part of your Math Video Library Membership coming July 16, 2020.


If distance learning continues next year, students are still going to need physical manipulatives. Encourage families to use items at home for a simple substitution. Beans can be used as place value chips and counters. Fraction strips and circles can be printed off the internet. Then, during lessons use digital manipulatives and invite students to show their homemade version.


Manipulatives play a vital role in the math classroom, especially in grades K-6. However, they must be used in a thoughtful way to truly be successful. If you would like to see some creative ways to use manipulatives, check out my videos in my Math Video Library for some sample lessons. Don't forget to grab your FREE download below!



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