If you are a K-6 teacher, you probably know all about using math manipulatives in the classroom. Simply put, math manipulatives are objects that students can manipulate. Using hands-on tools as part of math instruction helps to make math skills and strategies more concrete for children. They’re a great way to support student learning as mathematical concepts become more abstract.
Manipulatives are especially great for visual and tactile learners, but can support any student in learning new math skills. They make math more visual, which helps teachers who are demonstrating a particular skill as well as students who are learning it. And because they’re hands-on, they also make math more engaging!
But if you’re teaching virtually, or homeschooling, that doesn’t mean you need to rush out and order an expensive set of fancy math manipulatives! Chances are that you have many everyday items at home that will work perfectly. Get ready to raid your junk drawer, kitchen pantry, and toy shelf!
Place Value and Number Sense
To help illustrate the base-ten system, find items that can be grouped in tens. You can hold them together with a rubber band and place them on a homemade place value chart. Try:
- pretzel sticks
- popsicle sticks
- pens, pencils, markers, or crayons
- pipe cleaners
- cotton swabs
To practice building, reading, comparing, and ordering large numbers, try using:
- playing cards (use the ace as a 1 and remove the other face cards)
- homemade 0-9 digit cards
The place value manipulatives mentioned above are also useful when modeling addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Some other items that come in handy are play money from board games and calculators.
You can also draw a number line on paper and move counters on it to model different operations!
To practice multiplication facts, try:
- pieces of colored candy (like Skittles or M&Ms)
- food (pieces of fruit, crackers, cereal, raisins, beans, lentils, popcorn, etc.)
- legos or other building blocks (count the bumps)
- playing cards
- chips or tokens from board games
Just like with whole numbers, it’s helpful to have a place value chart you can place counters on to reinforce the base-ten system. You can also use:
- centimeter ruler or meter stick
Modeling part of a whole:
- food (pizza, cake, cookies, casseroles, etc.)
- homemade fraction circle (use a paper plate or cut out a paper circle)
- play dough
- pattern blocks
Modeling part of a group:
- food (pieces of fruit, crackers, cereal, raisins, beans, candy, lentils, popcorn, etc.)
- checkers or Connect4 pieces
- art supplies (colored beads, buttons, pompoms, stickers, sticky notes)
- legos and building blocks
- small toys (animals, cars, etc.)
Anything can be used to make geometric and numerical patterns! It’s also fun for kids to see what patterns they can discover around your home or outside.
The great thing about geometry is that it’s everywhere! Doing a scavenger hunt for 2D and 3D figures, symmetry, angles, line relationships, etc. is low-prep and a great way to make math more active!
Some items that can help students learn geometry concepts include:
- pattern blocks
- magnetic blocks in assorted shapes
- wood blocks in assorted shapes (or Jenga blocks)
- tangram pieces
- boxes (raid your pantry for rectangular prisms, cylinders, cubes, etc.)
Kids can also create their own geometric figures with play dough, sidewalk chalk, string, rubber bands, hair ties, and items like toothpicks and gum drops.
Anything can be used to model nonstandard measurement, such as hands, feet, paper clips, a piece of string, etc.
For standard measurement, look for:
- ruler, yardstick, and/or meter stick
- tape measure
- scale or balance
- measuring cups and spoons
- containers of different sizes (pints, quarts, gallons, 2-liter bottles, etc.)
- digital/analog clocks and stopwatches (including phone apps)
Many objects at home lend themselves to probability experiments, such as:
- 2-sided counters (you can use bottle caps)
- spinners from board games
- items of similar shape and size (like colored marbles, bouncy balls, toy cars) placed in a bag or box
If you don’t have any spinners, it’s super easy to make your own with a piece of paper, a pencil, and a paper clip.
Get those counters out again! They can be used to model pictographs and bar graphs. If you happen to have graph paper, that will be handy, too.
There’s probably many more items you have at home that would also help support your students as they develop mathematical reasoning and problem solving. I hope this list helps you to get started finding math manipulatives around your home! I’ll keep updating this list as I think of other great options, so be sure to bookmark!