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Math Manipulatives: How Can They Be Used to Enhance the Classroom Experience?

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Math is all around us. We can see it in nature and in our homes. We use math skills every day, even if we don’t realize it. And you can help your students see math in all of its forms with fun and engaging math manipulatives.

These hands-on objects and activities enhance your math lessons, giving students a concrete way to practice and play with math concepts. Sometimes it can be difficult for children to grasp the abstract concepts of adding, subtracting and multiplying numbers. But math manipulatives can help them actually see what the numbers are doing. 

Common math manipulatives include blocks of all kinds, whiteboards, and interesting online materials. Even if you don't have access to these resources right now, you can easily find creative alternatives for your classroom, especially once you understand what math manipulatives are and how they’re used.  

This article will give you a strong grasp of what math manipulatives are, the key benefits of using them, and our top 10 favorite math manipulatives for the classroom.

What are math manipulatives?

Math manipulatives are objects, charts, and activities that engage learners while helping them develop their math skills.

They can assist in teaching lessons such as graphing, decimals, geometry, arithmetic, and more. 

Using math manipulatives during a lesson brings hands-on learning to your classroom. And this can appeal to a multitude of different learners. 

As you know, not every student learns in the same way. Math manipulatives allow students to work with math in the way that’s best for them. By working independently with math manipulatives, a student is better able to work at their own pace and spend more time on concepts or problems that are particularly difficult for them. 

Many math concepts are conceptual and hard for students to visualize on paper. By practicing math processes with math manipulatives, learners can see exactly how the process affects the numbers and how problems are solved. 

There are many places to buy math manipulatives or manipulative kits, including online or in school supply stores. But you don’t need to buy an expensive, specialized kit to bring manipulatives to your classroom. Especially for younger grades, any toy collection or set of blocks will work. 

There are also many printable options available online. We’re talking loads of variations and choices, some geared towards homeschooling families, math centers or traditional classrooms. The digital choices are endless.

With all these options, it can be overwhelming and difficult to know where to start. Here’s our list of the ten most common and versatile math manipulatives to get you started.

10 Math manipulatives to implement in your classroom

1. Dominoes

Dominoes are much more than just a fun game. They’re also one of the best foundational math manipulatives. Dominoes can be used to teach a variety of math skills — like addition, multiplication, division, and subtraction. And they’re particularly helpful in younger grade levels. 

They’re easy for even the youngest students to grasp and move, and they can help math learning feel like a game.

Dominoes work well for both individual and small group problem-solving. They also allow you to take a quick trip around the room, gauging student understanding at a glance.

During your math manipulative time, encourage your students to create and solve their own math problems by arranging the dominoes in different ways. There are loads of math games you can play with dominoes. If you need some ideas, a quick Google search can pull up enough ideas for the entire school year.

2. Pattern blocks

Pattern blocks are a math manipulative perfect for geometry lessons. These blocks are made of either plastic or wood and come in a variety of shapes — like triangles, squares, rectangles, and trapezoids. 

Your students can experiment with how these shapes fit together to make new shapes or images. These blocks often come with pattern cards. These can guide your student in how to make a picture, or encourage them to be creative and create their own pattern. 

Student using pattern blocks in math class.

Pattern blocks are also great for basic math learning. Lessons in fractions, counting and patterns can all be enhanced with pattern blocks. With so many diverse applications, many educators feel these blocks are an important and necessary component of their teaching toolkit – especially in younger grade levels.

3. Online math games

Regardless of your classroom setup — traditional, virtual, homeschooling or hybrid — digital math manipulatives are a great option! They allow students to engage with math in a unique and fun way. And there’s a huge variety of online math games online, targeting whichever math skills you’re currently teaching. 

Online math games can even support student learning over the summer months or during school breaks. The fun nature of online games keeps students excited and learning at home — because they don’t feel like homework. 

Looking for a math game for your class, try Prodigy Math!

A lot of my higher level students are really motivated by Prodigy, but the part that I like the best is when my students can work cooperatively. My lower level math students can play with my higher level ones and they both are engaged in their math work and having fun. It’s a great supplementary tool to help keep math fun and engaging, and it works.

See how it works

William Stenross

4th Grade Classroom Teacher

4. Cuisenaire rods

Cuisenaire rods are rectangular rods of various lengths. They’re often made of wood, and each length corresponds to a different color. For example, all red rods are 10 units long, while all yellow rods are 5 units long. 

These colorful manipulatives can help bring the otherwise boring number line to life. Students can visualize the distance between numbers, and see the relationship numbers have with each other. How many times does 5 go into 10? Grab the number rods and find out! 

Cuisenaire rods are a math favorite, mostly due to their versatility. They can be used to teach everything from basic number sense to fractions and patterns. Whether you teach Pre-K or 8th grade, you can find a use for Cuisenaire rods.

5. Two color counters

Another popular manipulative in math classrooms is two-color counters. Color counters are simple plastic circles with one color on each side. You’ll see them most often used to demonstrate fractions, basic addition, subtraction and counting skills.

Two color counter’s simplistic nature means they’re most popular in lower grade levels. And even better, two-color counters are often magnetic, making them the perfect choice for whiteboard activities and math games. Use them to demonstrate lessons when you’re front of class, or divide students into small groups so they can experiment and learn.

6. Fraction tiles & fraction circles

Fraction tiles and fraction circles are two different math manipulatives with a similar purpose. 

Fractions can be particularly difficult for students to understand and work with. These manipulatives can help students deepen their conceptual understanding of fractions with two different math visuals — making them a perfect pair.

Fraction tiles are often flat, rectangular pieces of plastic or cardboard made of different colors and varying lengths. They usually have the corresponding fraction printed on them so kids can quickly look and compare. The varying lengths allow students to experiment with how fractions work together to create not just whole numbers, but also different fractions within the whole. 

Fraction circles are very similar, but instead of rectangles, they use parts of a circle. This is the manipulative version of the pie or pizza example. Students can use differently sized pieces to understand how fractions can add up to 1. 

Bonus — both of these math manipulatives are easy to DIY with paper print outs if you’re on a time or budget restraint.

See how to make your own fraction tiles below!

7. Rekenreks counting frames

Rekenreks counting frames are often one of the first math manipulatives a student will use. In fact, many use similar bead counters before they ever come to school. 

These simple arithmetic frames combine the concepts of the number line, individual counters, and base-ten models to create a useful learning tool. Students move the beads from one end to the other to practice counting or assist with basic addition and subtraction problems. 

Younger students, like those in Pre-K and elementary school, benefit the most from Rekenrek counting frames. Once students have mastered counting and single-digit math problems, they’re ready to move on to more diverse manipulatives.

8. Bear counters

Bear counters are another great option for younger students. 

These fun and colorful plastic bears will keep your little learners excited to play with math. The bears are perfect for teaching the foundational math skills of counting and sorting. They can also be paired with a scale to teach measurement and weight. 

If you don’t have bear counters in your classroom, look for other small toys that can serve the same purpose. It’s helpful for them to be similar in type, but that’s not a necessity. Students can practice counting zoo animals, cotton balls, or erasers just the same. 

9. Place value blocks or base ten blocks

Place value blocks, also called base-ten blocks, are used in classrooms from Pre-K all the way to 8th grade. These little plastic blocks connect to each other, making them a fun option for teaching a variety math concepts — like addition, subtraction, fractions, measurement, counting and more. 

Most sets are colorful and can help students visualize different parts of an equation. They’re perfect for exploring place value as well. Once students move up to solving double-digit problems, different colors can be used to represent the tens and even hundreds place. 

Bonus tip: You can also use this place value chart as another in-class supplement!

Place value blocks used in class.

10. Geoboards

Looking for something besides blocks for your geometry activities in class? Geoboards are the answer.

Geoboards are small wooden or plastic pegboards that use string or rubber bands to create a variety of shapes. They’re a great hands-on activity for practicing shape recognition and names.  

Geoboards can double as a fun brain break for young students. Pre-K and elementary students are often still working on the fine motor skills needed to draw shapes and write numbers. And manipulating the rubber bands or strings can be a welcome departure from the frustration of writing.

Like pattern blocks, you can have students use these in a structured way by making specific shapes. Or give them the freedom to create whichever shapes they’d like. You’re sure to end up with some fantastic, mathematical art! 

See how one teacher used a geoboard to explain basic shapes to her first grade students below!

Physical vs. virtual math manipulatives

Classrooms today don’t look the same as they did twenty years ago, or even 3 years ago. The number of students in virtual or hybrid classrooms has increased dramatically. So, when you can’t physically hand your students math manipulatives, what are your options?

There’s actually quite a few! In the last few years, many free, online programs offering virtual math manipulatives have popped up. These may not be manipulatives in the traditional sense, but online games stretch the brain using a variety of learning models. They help students nail down complicated concepts in much the same way as the manipulatives mentioned above.

And it’s not just virtual classrooms that can benefit from these tools. Homeschooling rates are on the rise. But many parents may not have the budget to purchase a large variety of math manipulatives. Online options provide a budget-friendly way to teach math at home or in the classroom. 

It’s easy to see how virtual manipulatives are beneficial for both students and teachers. Teachers now have a wide variety of effective teaching tools at their fingertips. And learners can gain a deeper understanding of math concepts on a platform they already enjoy. That means less frustration and more opportunity. Let’s dive deep into a few more benefits of math manipulatives, whether virtual or physical.

3 Key benefits of using math manipulatives in the classroom

Increase interactive learning

In a classroom of 15-30 students, no two students are alike. They all learn in unique ways. And trying to make one lesson fit all those students is impossible. 

For students who are struggling with math, hands-on learning activities with manipulatives can be a huge help. Not everyone can make sense of math on paper alone. Hands-on activities give learners a deeper understanding of how numbers work. And this understanding will continue to help them as they progress through school. 

Students need to have a full understanding of basic concepts. Math builds on itself, so have a strong foundation will only help them as they gain more knowledge and advanced skills. 

Also, manipulatives keep math learning exciting. Students grow bored of always using the same learning method. There’s little to love about lectures and equations on a whiteboard. Math manipulatives can help you diversify your teaching style. You’ll reach more students by using more methods, and that means more engagement and more learning. Awesome!

A group of primary students sitting and standing around a desk having an exciting conversation.

Develop problem-solving skills

Math manipulatives help students develop more complex problem-solving skills. When a student fully understands a math concept, they’re better able to apply that concept to real-world problems. We want to teach students how to apply math skills across all of life, not just to next week’s test. 

Also, math manipulatives allow for a variety of problem solving methods. Students often interpret and think about problems in different ways. And that means they’ll approach the solution differently too. Math manipulatives give your students the freedom to explore multiple paths to a solution. And if it doesn’t work, it’s easier for them to see why.

Build confidence in each math lesson

All of this problem solving with math manipulatives can give your students a major confidence boost! Activities with math manipulatives allow students to take the reins of their learning process. And because many math manipulatives are self-correcting, they can work individually on their problems. When they reach the right answer, all on their own, they’ll feel an amazing sense of pride and accomplishment.

When students are able to understand and apply mathematical concepts, they’re filled with that I did it feeling. Mastering the steps of a complicated math process gives students the confidence and encouragement to keep moving forward. 

Students can then translate this deeper conceptual understanding to tests, quizzes, and standardized tests. They won’t need a last minute cram session to succeed. They can stress less knowing they have the knowledge to tackle a variety of math and life problems.

Whether physical or virtual, math manipulatives can create a ripple effect that helps students throughout their entire educational journey. 

Young students sit in rows, raising their hands to answer the teacher's question.

Develop your student’s math skills in a fun and engaging way

Math manipulatives are fantastic tools for helping your students understand and engage in their math lessons. And there are so many math manipulatives to choose from — something to fit every lesson and each student’s unique needs.

Even if you don’t have physical math manipulatives at your disposal, you can easily find virtual and online options that are just as helpful. 

And some of them come at no-cost to teachers and schools! 👇

A no-cost, virtual math manipulative that's fun!

When you’re exploring virtual options for math manipulatives, be sure to check out Prodigy Math. Prodigy’s online math game is a stress-free way to help students master standards-aligned math skills. It’s safe, fun and engaging, keeping your students excited and ready for their next lesson.

And with a free teacher account you can:

  • Set up engaging math practice in just a few clicks
  • Easily find out any learning gaps your students may have
  • Track how your students are progressing through your local or national curriculum
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