I hear this question all the time, along with, “What tools should be available in my math class?,” “What manipulatives purchase would give me the best bang for my buck?”, and “What should I buy for my teachers so their students will be successful?”
My first thoughts probably go without saying:
- If the manipulatives don’t get used, if they stay on the shelf or in the closet, they will not be a good investment.
- If students don’t engage with the manipulatives in meaningful ways, neither the students nor the tools will be successful.
- If the teacher is ill-equipped to help the students use the manipulatives in effective ways, the impact is likely to be negligible, at best.
Once teachers are equipped with the methods and management for using manipulatives well, here is my “tier one list” of manipulatives that I personally recommend be present in every elementary classroom.
Although the most conventional version are Base-Ten Blocks, I find that these pre-grouped blocks can often hinder students’ understanding of arithmetic because they undo place value understanding (see our previous journal entries for explanation). Instead, I prefer groupable manipulatives that help students develop a concrete understanding for the “nesting” nature of our base-ten system (e.g., one ten is concurrently 10 ones; one hundred is concurrently 10 tens and 100 ones; etc.). KP Ten-Frame Tiles facilitate developing understanding of numbers within ten and building with tens for both whole numbers and decimals. Click here to check them out!
My preference is either clear colored disks or two-color counters. I prefer the two-color counters because they transition so nicely from whole numbers to integer operations. I’m not a huge fan of all the “cute” counters with which we stock our primary classrooms, such as teddy bear, dinosaur, or people counters. It’s far more meaningful for students to “pretend” that the simple counters are these other objects, using substitutionary thinking that can lay the groundwork for using variables as substitutes for numbers later on.
These have been around for years and can be used for counting, simple arithmetic, and non-standard units for linear and area measurement.
Inch Tiles, Inch Cubes, and CM Cubes
These are all great for counting, early arithmetic, and transitioning to standard measurement units. I also use the 1” Tiles for introducing the area model for early multiplication.
You’ll want to be sure your students have access to rulers, balance scales, and liquid volume pouring containers. Of course, using non-standard units is a must prior to introducing students to standard units and the tools that measure them.
Whether used for geometry, algebraic thinking, whole number wok, or fraction concepts, pattern blocks are incredibly useful from kindergarten through middle school.
Proportional Coin Cards
It’s common for us to think of plastic (or real) coins as math manipulatives. However, there is nothing conceptual about coins that helps students see the proportional relationships among their values. Therefore, KP Mathematics has created a set of proportional coin cards, based on ten frames, that helps students develop understanding of these relationships. Download a free set from our website by clicking here.
So that’s my short list for elementary classroom manipulatives. Of course, there are many, many other things out there, and my “tier two list” includes things like geometric solids, unmarked fraction bars, Cuisenaire rods, and attribute blocks. However, most of the items on my “tier two list” can easily be reproduced with paper, scissors, and tape.
Now I’m wondering what’s at the top of your manipulatives list? How do you stock your math classroom? Please let us know by responding in the comments box below.
We look forward to continuing the conversation!