The Power of Elementary Math Manipulatives
Have you ever watched babies as they start to explore the world? They touch everything! They pick things up, they look at things carefully, and they move things around. Children learn a lot from touch.
That’s exactly why many teachers use manipulatives in their classrooms. Manipulatives help students grasp abstract concepts by letting them pick things up, look at them carefully, and move them around. You can successfully use elementary math manipulatives to enhance your math lessons and watch your students connect the ideas they are learning.
What are Manipulatives in Math?
Manipulatives are tools that are used to help students visualize ideas. Students become more engaged in their learning as they work with manipulatives. They come in many shapes and sizes, and research shows that using them has a positive effect on students’ understanding.
What’s the Point?
Maybe you are thinking you don’t have time to add one more thing to your lessons. Maybe you don’t see the need for all the blocks and tiles and rods. But there are many great reasons for using manipulatives in math. Math is full of abstract ideas, and children may have a hard time understanding them. Manipulatives help them to see, feel, and explore numbers, fractions, and geometry.
Math manipulatives encourage a handtomind connection. Your brain and hands have a special connection. Working with manipulatives helps to strengthen that connection! What the mind thinks, the hands do. When students use manipulatives, they develop problemsolving skills and relate things they’ve already learned to new concepts. Maybe most importantly, students become more engaged in the learning process.
How to Use Elementary Math Manipulatives
Classroom manipulatives for teachers are available to purchase all over the Internet, but you can also get creative with everyday items. Poker chips, dice, and colorful pipe cleaners of different lengths can be used in your math classroom. Make counting manipulatives from colored pieces of paper, beads, or blocks. Use these items for graphing lessons, too. Students can create picture graphs using things like colored pompoms or pencil erasers.
If you choose to purchase manipulatives, many of them can be used for a variety of different activities and at different grade levels. Check out this list of math manipulatives you may want to have on hand, along with some ideas on how to use them.
 Clock with moving hands: This popular manipulative helps young students learn to tell time and find elapsed time. Give each student a clock, and call out different times for students to show on their clocks. Make the game a race as students improve. When solving elapsed time problems, students can show a start or end time on the clock and then move the clock’s hands forward or backward. This helps them to visualize the change in time.
 Play money: Realistic play money helps students learn to count money and solve problems involving money. Use money that is realisticlooking so that students will be able to identify actual bills and coins. Set up a classroom store where students act as customers and cashiers. Students pretend to buy and sell items and practice counting money and making change. This can be an ongoing fun activity in your classroom! Have students switch roles between customers and cashiers, and allow them to use their imaginations as they act out their roles.
 Baseten blocks: Ones, tens, hundreds, and thousands blocks help students understand place value. They can also be used in early addition and subtraction lessons.
 Place value: Students can use the blocks to show three and fourdigit numbers. Create charts with spaces for each place value. Write three and fourdigit numbers on index cards. Have students pull an index card and create that number using the blocks.
 Addition and subtraction: Students can set up addition and subtraction problems using blocks and calculate sums and differences.
 Attribute blocks: These colorful blocks generally come in a set with blocks in different sizes, thicknesses, colors, and shapes. Students can tell the difference between large and small and thick and thin. They can recognize colors and shapes as well.
 Play games where you give one, two, three, or four attributes and have students find the correct block or blocks. For example, there may be many blocks that fit when you tell them to find a red block, but only one when you ask for a large, thick, red triangle.
 Create Venn diagrams, labeling the circles with different attributes. Sort the blocks into the appropriate parts of the diagram. Start with Venn diagrams with two circles and then progress to three circles.
 Pattern blocks: Although similar to attribute blocks, pattern blocks don’t vary in size and thickness.
 Plane figures: Students can handle the pattern blocks to identify plane figures, move them around to create compound figures, and sort them by the number of sides.
 Shape patterns: Have students create and describe shape patterns. Ask one student to make a pattern. Then have another extend the pattern by a set number of figures.
 Cuisenaire rods: This set of colorful rods usually comes in 10 lengths (1 centimeter to 10 centimeters). You can incorporate these rods into number, addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, fraction, and measurement lessons, among others.
 Composing and decomposing numbers: Assign values to the different rods. For example, the shortest is 1, the next shortest is 2, etc. Choose one of the longer rods to represent a number, and have students find different combinations of the shorter rods that make that number. So, if the 5centimeter rod represents 5, students can compose 5 using the 1centimeter rod and the 4centimeter rod, the 2centimeter rod and the 3centimeter rod, and so forth.
 Skipcounting and multiplication readiness: Assign a value to one full rod. Have students find a specific number of those rods and use them for skip counting. Move on to addition and multiplication readiness by treating each rod as an addend or a factor. For example, if the 6centimeter rod represents 12 and the 2centimeter rod represents 4, students can show the addition sentence 4 + 4 + 4 = 12 or the multiplication sentence 3 x 4 = 12.

 Greatest common factor: Create “trains” of rods by placing rods of the same length end to end. For instance, start with the 8centimeter rod. Underneath, place two 4centimeter rods end to end. In a third row, place four 2centimeter rods, and lastly, place eight 1centimeter rods. Make a similar setup for the 10centimeter rod. Students can use the displays to find the factors of both numbers and then find the greatest common factor.

 Fractions: Have students look for a pair of rods that equal the length of one rod. Then have them find three rods of the same size that equal the length of that rod, and so forth. Discuss what each of the smaller rods represents for each setup. Find different equivalent fractions.

 Problem Solving: For this problemsolving activity, tell students to choose a certain number of blocks and then create a figure using those blocks. You might ask students to pick between 5 and 15 blocks and build a house using all of the blocks they chose. Discuss what they had to think about before choosing their blocks and how they decided which blocks would be helpful. Your students will probably have a lot of different methods!! You might also draw figures on graph paper, and have students fill them in with rods. Be sure that the figure can be completely covered using various lengths of rods.

 Area: Use the 1centimeter cubes to create a rectangle of a specified area. Draw rectangles of various dimensions (use centimeters for drawing purposes), and have students cover them with cubes to find the area.
 Geoboards: Geoboards have raised pegs on them; students wrap bands around the pegs to make different shapes. These boards are most often used in geometry lessons. You can find uses for them in other areas of math, as well as other subjects.

 Plane figures: Your students can practice creating plane figures of different dimensions. Explore area and perimeter by creating rectangles with different areas but the same perimeter and vice versa.

 Composite figures: Encourage students to make pictures or designs using specified figures. Have students create composite figures. Specify that they should make a sixsided figure from squares, a quadrilateral from triangles, and other figures.
 Fraction tiles or strips: These colorful tiles or strips help students visualize fractions. Use them to teach fractions as well as to find equivalent fractions. Have students build a figure showing a whole at the top followed by halves, thirds, fourths, fifths, and so on to tenths or beyond.
Not All Fun and Games
Manipulatives can be a lot of fun for teachers and students. Be careful that you use them to support your lesson; don’t rely solely on manipulatives to teach the concepts. Research shows that students need a balance between little to no structured use of manipulatives and stepbystep instructions on how to handle them.
As a teacher, you need to be involved in your students’ use of manipulatives. If they don’t understand what the manipulatives mean, they won’t be able to connect them with what you are teaching. The tools will simply become distractions.
Keep your manipulatives separate from toys in the classroom. It may be hard for young students to switch between thinking of pieces of play pizza as toys and then as fraction manipulatives. In the same way, using colored pieces of candy as manipulatives may be fun but will likely create other problems (and they may disappear during the lesson).
Draw connections between the manipulatives and written mathematical symbols. One study found that some students were able to solve problems using manipulatives but weren’t able to solve the same problems in writing.
Manipulatives should aid in students’ understanding, but they eventually need to be able to do the math without these tools. As students work with the manipulatives, talk about math symbols, too. Be sure that students understand what the manipulatives represent and how to write that representation with numbers and symbols.
Using manipulatives in math lessons can engage your students and help them learn in a different way. Plus, it can make the learning process fun!
Use manipulatives to play learning games and allow students to explore new ideas as they make connections. Nourish the handtomind connection in your lessons. Be sure that your students understand what the manipulatives represent, and you will set them up for success!
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