I know I may be in the minority—but I love math, and I really love teaching math! I’m truly a nerd at heart. When it comes to teaching math to young students—using manipulatives is definitely the way to go! Regardless of what math curriculum you’re using—math manipulatives help kids gain a more concrete understanding of numbers. Plus, manipulatives make math more engaging and fun! Here’s the list of my top 10 favorite math manipulatives! I’ve used all these items time and time again during my 14 years of homeschooling–and before that in my second grade classroom! Most of these items will be used for several years (pre-k through 3rd grade), so adding them to your collection is both cost effective and practical!
1. Unifix Cubes
Oh, how I love unifix cubes! Here’s a few ways I use them:
- Creating patterns
- Visually acting out word problems
- Building numbers: ”Build a tower with 4 cubes….Can we build it a different way? How many ways can we make a tower of 4 cubes?”
- Comparing numbers and practicing math vocabulary: “Which tower is bigger? Can you tell me which one has the most? Which tower has the least? Tell me which tower is the 2nd tallest. Which one is the middle?…”
- Early measurement units (“How many cubes tall is Spider Man?”)
Like unifix cubes—teddy bear counters can be used over and over again for creating patterns, acting out story problems, practicing one-to-one correspondence, etc… Young kids are really drawn to these little bears…(Some bears have found their way to our Barbie House and Lego Bin—so watch out, they have a way escaping the math basket!)
3. Judy Clock
I remember being mesmerized by my 2nd grade teacher’s giant Judy Clock…I’ve owned my Judy Clock for over 18 years (it survived from my days as a classroom teacher)! It’s truly the best way to teach kids how to tell time. The large numbers, the moving hands and gears, the clearly labeled 5 minute intervals–all make the Judy Clock perfect for visual kids and hands-on-learners!
Calendars are a perfect way to start the day (or at least a math lesson)–even through the third grade (or higher)! Because calendars deal with abstract concepts, such as time (years, months, weeks, days, seasons)–discussing them with older elementary aged kids is totally developmentally appropriate! A kindergartener may be able to recite the days of the week–but a true understanding of days and weeks might not start clicking in a concrete way until they’re much older. I currently use two calendars with my kindergarten son and preschool aged daughters. One is a large pocket calendar (mine is the Pacon Calendar Pocket Weather Chart)–which is great for seeing the overall flow of a month. But, I also love the Melissa and Doug “My First Daily Magnetic Calendar.” It reinforces concepts from our larger calendar–and my kids love moving the daily magnets!
So obviously, these come in handy for counting, but I especially love using them with a 100 chart for highlighting numbers! We use clear plastic chips to practice counting by 10’s and 5’s–and recently they’ve been perfect for learning to count by two’s. And they give kids a great visual for learning even and odd numbers. You can find 100 charts free online (like at Super Teacher Worksheets)! Kids can also practice number identification, by covering up specific numbers on the 100 chart!
Kids love the hands-on experience that geoboards offer! Building shapes with rubber bands–there is just something about it that draws kids into geometry! Besides the obvious chance to work with shapes–geoboards help kids problem solve and improve visual-spacial reasoning!
- I have my kids build specific shapes–squares, rectangles, triangles, pentagons, trapezoids, parallelograms.
- But I also have kids problem solve, for example: “Can you create a shape where the length is twice the width?”
- And kids love trying to create a mirror image of a design you’ve set up on the board…the possibilities are endless!
I can’t imagine trying to teach addition and subtraction with regrouping (also called renaming or borrowing and carrying) without using base ten blocks! These are a must-have for me! (Anu at Growing Curious Minds has a great post explaining how to use base ten blocks when teaching regrouping!).
But base ten blocks can be used for younger kids too! Use them to build numbers–perhaps a number of the day or the date! Kids can begin visually seeing place value! (So if the date is April 19–you would use one rod/ten block and nine “ones.”)
8. Play Money
Teaching money concepts is much easier when using actual coins or play coins–worksheets just don’t do the subject justice! Your kids will be much more engaged when handling “real,” money. Play money can be incorporated into fun dramatic play activities! Some of my kids’ favorite math lessons are when we set up a play store or restaurant!
Pattern blocks can be used from preschool through elementary school! Kids love both creating mosaic pictures and solving puzzles with the blocks! (This is such an excellent way to grow those visual spacial problem solving skills!)
I personally like heavy plastic pattern blocks (but wooden and magnetic sets are also available). Some sets do not come with puzzles–so those may need to be purchased separately.
10. Mini Erasers
I use mini erasers to add some fun and novelty to counting and basic arithmetic practice! You can find mini erasers for just about any animal, holiday, or season! And of course–they are super inexpensive! Plus they can also be used as game pieces for games you create (like Addition or Number BINGO)!
Making Math Fun
My hope is that these manipulatives will help make math more fun for both you and your kiddos! I know they will improve your child’s understanding of numbers–helping to build a solid number sense foundation…and ultimately a love for learning math!
Do you have a favorite math manipulative? What’s on your must-have list? Please feel free to share–I know it blesses other moms to hear what is working when it comes to teaching math!
P.S. Don’t miss my Homeschool Math Pinterest Board!