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Homemade Math Manipulatives for Distance Learning

July 19, 2020 No Comments

If you are a K-6 teacher, you probably know all about using math manipulatives in the classroom. 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 something expensive! Chances are that you have many everyday items at home that will work perfectly for distance learning. Get ready to raid your junk drawer, kitchen pantry, and toy shelf!

What are math manipulatives, and how can you use them at home to support children's mathematical thinking?

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:

  • straws
  • pretzel sticks
  • popsicle sticks
  • chopsticks
  • pens, pencils, markers, or crayons
  • pipe cleaners
  • cotton swabs
Use items you can bundle, like straws, to model place value and the base-ten system.

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
  • dice


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!

Use the dots on building blocks to model multiplication arrays.

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)
  • dice
  • dominoes
  • 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:

  • coins
  • 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
Food is great to use to show students fractions of a whole and fractions in a set.

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.

Colored toys, counters, and other tokens are great to use to model numerical and geometric patterns.


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.

Cereal and other small food items are easy to use to create geometric figures and other geometry concepts.


Anything can be used to model nonstandard measurement, such as hands, feet, paper clips, a piece of string, etc.

You can use office supplies, like paper clips, for nonstandard measurement.

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)
  • thermometer


Many objects at home lend themselves to probability experiments, such as:

  • dice
  • coins
  • 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.

Students can learn about probability with items in a bag, like colored marbles.


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 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 house that will work for virtual learning and homeschooling!

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