Hands On Learning – Math Manipulatives to Use in Your Classroom

a child's math board

Math is one of the most important sets of skills that any student can learn over their academic careers. The average adult uses math in various forms daily, from paying for an item at a store to measuring ingredients for a recipe to planning out the family’s weekly schedule…it all involves math. That’s why it is so vital for exposure to math concepts to begin early in childhood, and math manipulatives are a phenomenal way to introduce math topics to students of all ages. In this post, we’ll go over some of the most popular math manipulatives to use in each level of primary school – elementary, middle, and high.

What are Math Manipulatives?

Any type of object that helps students build and strengthen their math skills can be considered a math manipulative. Colorful blocks often come to mind first when thinking about math manipulatives, but there are many more items that can be used. These helpful tools bring a hands-on learning approach to the classroom and allow students to visualize math concepts in a more practical and easier to understand way. For elementary school, math manipulatives help students learn basic math skills like counting, place value, simple shapes, comparisons, time, and money. For middle and high schoolers, math manipulatives will be more complex and reinforce higher level math concepts found in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and beyond.

Elementary School

Elementary school is the time when a student learns the foundation of their math skills. Without building a solid foundation, the student won’t be able to expand their math skills to more difficult concepts. By incorporating math manipulatives into elementary school math lessons, students are able to visualize how the math concept practically works and practice the concept until mastery is achieved. Some of our favorite math manipulatives for this age group include:

  • Dice
  • Playing Cards
  • Objects for Counting – Cubes, Chips, Beads, etc.
  • Place Value Blocks
  • Counting Charts
  • Number Lines
  • Rulers
  • Pattern Blocks
  • Geometric Shapes
  • Geoboards
  • Clock
  • Play Money
  • Scales
  • Dominoes
  • Cuisenaire Rods
  • Fraction Tiles and Circles

Middle/High School

Middle and high school offer the student an opportunity to really embrace higher-level math concepts found in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and other math classes, in preparation for college or a career. This is when students are first introduced to graphing, geometric planes, algebraic equations, complex fractions, geometric theorems and proofs, and more. While several of the math manipulatives featured for elementary school students will also work in higher grades, there are also several items we recommend that are specifically for older students working on complex math tasks.

  • Dice
  • Playing Cards
  • Centimeter Cubes
  • Fraction Tiles and Circles
  • Algebra Dominoes
  • Algebra Tiles
  • Graphing Board (dry-erase)
  • Geometric Shapes
  • Rulers
  • Protractors
  • Charts – formulas, proofs, theorems, etc.
  • Paper (for folding to show geometric concepts)
  • Pipe Cleaners

Physical vs. Virtual Math Manipulatives

A conversation about math manipulatives in 2024 wouldn’t be complete without mentioning virtual manipulatives. While math manipulatives have traditionally been physical items that students can touch, pick up, and physically manipulate, the modern classroom is also incorporating the use of virtual math manipulatives via computer and remote learning options. Virtual math manipulatives are basically the same as their physical counterparts, only they are accessible via computer only and typically are associated with a certain online game or activity. For classrooms with limited funding to purchase physical manipulatives, for students who cannot come into the classroom, or for students who learn best in the digital environment, virtual math manipulatives are a great alternative.

Add Math Manipulatives to Your Teaching Arsenal

Math manipulatives are a required element of a comprehensive math curriculum at any level. Research shows that the use of math manipulatives in primary and secondary math education boosts idea understanding and retention. Without manipulatives, students may struggle to visualize basic and complex math theories and concepts. While the most popular math manipulatives will vary by age and grade level, all students will benefit from the use of these tried-and-true learning tools. Add a variety of math manipulatives, both physical and virtual, to your math teaching arsenal to keep your students engaged and building new skills.


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