WHY DO STUDENTS NEED ELEMENTARY MATH MANIPULATIVES?
It’s so easy to start out teaching our children using “play” when they are little and then switch to books and workbooks when they are older. Yet, even our elementary students, or perhaps especially our elementary students, benefit greatly by learning through “play”. This is especially true when it comes to mathematical concepts and is exactly where elementary math manipulatives come into play.
Our elementary age students greatly enjoy, and are able to make stronger conceptual understandings of math concepts when we can help them take abstract concepts and make them more concrete. Think of things like relating fractions to pizza and cherry pie, or grabbing an oatmeal container out of the pantry to demonstrate what a cylinder looks like. All of these things help our students really understand math concepts more concretely.
I find over and over again that the more I am able to bring math manipulatives into our math learning, the better the learning “sticks”.
There are several math curriculums on the market that require/suggest a fairly expensive bundle of elementary math manipulatives which are great if you want to spend the money on them. We have not taken that path; however, we still use manipulatives whenever possible.
Math when done right in my book, anyway, involves not only knowing the how of numbers, but the why…having a “sense” of how the numbers work together and why. And honestly, understanding how things work together is a key component to understanding our world, which leads to greater learning as our children advance in school.
Math is not about rote memorization of facts so much as it is about understanding how number concepts work together and why. It’s about developing critical thinking skills in our students. It’s the how and the why, not the what that matters most.
With that in mind, I’ve come up with a list for you of our favorite math manipulatives for elementary students. If you’ve already checked out our list of our Top 10 Math Manipulatives for Toddlers and Preschoolers, you’ll notice some carry over here as the learning possibilities with some of the items on the list span multiple ages and skill levels.
OUR TOP 13 ELEMENTARY MATH MANIPULATIVES:
Beyond the basic math supplies listed above, here are the elementary math manipulatives that I strongly recommend for your students:
1. Fraction StaxWe love this for learning fractions! The columns make it easy to keep the pieces together and the colorcoded pieces make it easy to put everything back together neatly at the end of a lesson. The pieces are interchangeable to your student can substitute two of the 1/4 pieces for one of the 1/2 pieces or for four of the 1/8 pieces to see how the fractions are equivalent. This little gem makes it so much simpler for students to understand the way .


2. Geometric SolidsThese are wonderful for teaching 3D shapes. Your students can use them to count the faces, edges, vertices, etc. There are also solid shapes available, but I like that these are clear and you can “see” the hidden sides of the shape…so much easier for teaching students to draw shapes.


3. Unifix CubesWe use these tons! They are great for counting, making groups, developing pattern recognition skills, and so much more.


4. Plastic Pattern BlocksMake endless designs and patterns with these lovely pattern blocks. We often have an entire math lessons using these where I set the kids lose to either come up with their own ideas for what they can make with the pieces or search the internet for “pattern block templates” for ideas. The kids enjoy the break from their regular math assignments and I love how working with pattern blocks develops their spatial reasoning skills and problem solving abilities.


5. GeoboardGeoboards are wonderful for teaching shapes and learning about perimeter, area, etc. These are useful for both lower and upper elementary students as their skills with working with shapes progress.


6. Balance Scale Set with Weights and CountersMy kids LOVED their balance scale set when they were young. We compared weights of items…”how many teddy bears does it take to equal the weight of this toy car?” etc. We used this quite a bit when they entered lower elementary math as well. The clear buckets are also handy for teaching liquid measurement concepts.


7. Platform ScaleIsn’t this fun? I can see endless possibilities with this one and having one at home would be so much easier than using the produce scale at the grocery store…though that can be fun too! Though it’s quite similar to the balance scale set above, I love that it can be used to teach children to read a scale.


8. Tangram PiecesDesign simple shapes with the colorcoded pattern cards while learning about shapes or simply design your own shapes. Just like our pattern blocks, we often have an entire math lessons using these where I set the kids lose to either come up with their own ideas for what they can make with the pieces or we go to a website such as Tangram Channel and challenge ourselves to construct various shapes. The kids enjoy the break from their regular math assignments and I love how working with tangrams develops their spatial reasoning skills and problem solving abilities. While looking this up for the link we ran across Tangoes, which are tangram challenge cards and look super fun, I think we’ll have to order a set!


9. Gear ClockIn our digital world sometimes it can be difficult to teach children how to read a clock. These are wonderful, because your students can manipulate the hands to change the time as needed which is wonderful both for practicing what a certain time would look like on a clock, but also for math problems with elapsed time (ie. it’s 10:35 now, what time was it 3 hours and 45 minutes ago).


10. “Play” MoneyI love this little money sorter and the fact that the money looks very realistic. Using realistic money makes it so much easier to teach students to add and subtract money 

11. Large Foam Playing DiceWe use these dice for math games, such as addition, subtraction and multiplication. Simply roll two dice and then add them, subtract them, multiply them, etc. and the first player to a set score wins, or just use them for a fun math practice time. My upper elementary student has also used them for probability problems as she has advanced in math. 

12. 100s Board and Plastic CountersHundreds boards come in incredibly handy for several years of elementary school. We’ve used them to learn about odds and evens, count forward and backward, count by 2’s, 3’s, etc. The possibilities are endless. We use ours with plastic counters and use the counters to cover the numbers we’re working with (ie when we’re learning about multiplication we place counters on each of the numbers in a given multiplication table). 

13. Math Rack
We just discovered this last year and it is amazing! Your students use the math rack to add and subtract, make groups of 5 and 10 and build number fluency quickly. 
Each of these elementary math manipulatives are also fun in their own right and can be educational when the child is left alone to play with them, but the true value of them will be in using them with your child in conjunction with their school lessons. As you are working with them ask your students questions beyond what is in their math curriculum to help them further develop their math skills and their critical thinking skills naturally and more deeply.
And remember, it’s okay to take a day or two off from your regular math program to spend extra time working with math manipulatives to strengthen math understanding and make learning more enjoyable for everyone.
BEYOND THE LIST… basic elementary math supplies for every student:
In addition to the items on my list, your elementary students will need to have a 12″ ruler, yardstick or meterstick, stop watch, geared wristwatch (here’s what our kids have: boy’s watch, girl’s watch), basic flashcards for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, a compass, and a protractor.
We also always keep a deck of playing cards on hand for playing “war”…at it’s basic level it can help with practicing the concepts of less than/greater than/equal to. We also sometimes play addition, subtraction, or multiplication war in which each player lays down 2 cards per turn and the player with the higher value once the math principle is applied wins the hand.
As much as possible and where economically feasible, I have a complete set up of each of the things on our list for each of my students, because they inevitably will need them for their math lesson on the same day.
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