When I first started teaching I needed (wanted) all the manipulatives. My mission in life was to have as many math manipulatives as possible. Because more = better. Right?
Not really. I found myself going back to the same manipulatives over and over again, while the others that I worked so hard to obtain collected dust.
Learn though my mistakes. Skip the loss of time and money! Learn which manipulatives are essential, how to organize your manipulatives, how to use manipulatives with social distancing, and how to use manipulatives with distance learning.
There are SO many math manipulatives available, but you don’t need a massive collection. Here’s a list of the manipulatives I can’t live without.
- Base Ten Blocks-place value, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and decimals
- Place Value Disks-place value, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and decimals
- Pattern Blocks-fractions, geometry
- Cuisenaire Rods-Blank Fraction Tiles-best fraction manipulative of all time
- Square Tiles-measurement
Two things teachers don’t have are time and space. Agree?
Hopefully, reducing the volume of your manipulatives will save you space. There are also ways to organize your manipulatives to save time and space.
I store my math manipulatives in clear, stackable containers. There is one container of each type of manipulative for each group. Whenever we need our manipulatives, one person from each group gets the manipulatives from the bookshelf for their table. There’s no need for me to stop instruction while I pass everything out. I know it sounds simplistic, but you wouldn’t believe how much smoother the whole process has become!
I created a label for each tub and made sure to buy stackable tubs to keep things nice and straight. This is also nice for independent work time, because I often allow students to use manipulatives, so they can independently get what they need.
I’ll share free manipulative labels with you in a bit! Just keep scrolling.
Procedures for Manipulatives
It is essential to be consistent with your expectations of how manipulatives should be used. Along with your procedures, you’ll also need to create a plan for what to do when students do not use their manipulatives correctly.
- Handle them carefully-do not break
- Everyone helps clean up
- Check the floor for loose pieces
- Put the manipulatives away the way you found them
- Do not touch while the teacher it talking
Make sure students know where the manipulatives are kept in your classroom. Let students know which ones are available to them to use and which may be off limits. You’ll also want to discuss how and when it is appropriate to use the manipulatives.
Teaching With Manipulatives
When students are introduced to a new math concept, they should move through three phases: concrete (manipulatives), visual representations, and then abstract (symbols and algorithms). However, it’s not always a clear path for students. You’ll find that many students need the concrete models to transition to the visual representations. Just like many students need the visual representation to move to the abstract phase.
A Word of Caution
As adults using manipulatives, we “see” concepts that we already understand. However, for children who do not have the same mathematical understandings that we have, some misconceptions may develop. We cannot assume that students will automatically draw correct conclusions by interacting with a particular manipulative.
You can see an example of students moving through the three phases of instruction here.
Social Distancing and Manipulatives
This school will look a bit, or maybe extremely, different from other school years. There’s a good chance your students will not be allowed so share school supplies, including math manipulatives.
Teachers used to teaching with manipulatives can’t imagine teaching without them! This means we have to get even more creative.
Personal Math Toolkits
Almost any organization system will work: pencil boxes, sealable binder envelopes, or even Ziploc bags are inexpensive ideas!
You can add actual manipulatives to students’ toolkits. If you don’t have enough resources to go around, you can print paper copies for the toolkits.
Download free manipulative labels and images here.
While it seems like a pain to print and cut out, it doesn’t have to be terrible! Limit yourself to just the essentials. Also, if your school has a dusty old supply closet, check there. I hit the jackpot with a 1,000 year old math series. In the backs of the books were punch out math manipulatives!
- Base Ten Blocks
- Place Value Disks
- Pattern Blocks
- Cuisenaire Rods-Blank Fraction Tiles
I’ve created a free set of math manipulatives that you can download here. Even though it is admittedly annoying to make and cut out, I kept the base-ten blocks as proportional as possible. This is really important for students. I also kept one value to a page, just in case you wanted to print on colored paper.
I avoided virtual manipulatives for years. I wanted something in my students’ hands. But, as we all know, that isn’t always possible
At first, I was skeptical of using virtual manipulatives, but they began to grow on me. Now they play an important role in the classroom. They are perfect for modeling something for the whole group. Virtual manipulatives also make it easy for students to share and explain their thinking.
One added benefit of virtual manipulatives is that they are quiet and clean. Some days we just need that.
My top choice for virtual manipulatives is Math Learning Center. It’s free and is a Google extension. I can add it directly to students’ Chromebooks.
As I update my math units for distance learning, I’m careful to keep them interactive with embedded manipulatives. You can see base-ten blocks used here.
As always let me know if you have any questions!