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Math manipulatives come in so many shapes, sizes, and purposes that it's hard to decide which ones are really necessary. The truth is - you can almost never have too many. Using manipulatives lets students experience math first-hand. Rather than just listen to someone talk about math or watch someone demonstrate math, manipulatives help students gain a deep and personal understanding of math through hands-on experience. This is so very important for our young learners!
So what manipulatives should every classroom have? Here is my Top 10 list...
You can teach kids standard algorithms all day long. But if they don't have a solid understanding of our base-ten number system, they really won't know what they're doing. A set of base-ten blocks with thousands, hundreds, tens, and ones will really help them get it. Not only are they great for teaching regrouping; they also help students visualize quantities.
When buying base-ten blocks, I suggest the hard plastic over foam. They are much more durable and can be stacked.
Dry Erase Number Lines
If I have to pick one manipulative to buy, this might be it. There are so many uses for dry-erase number lines - skip counting, addition, subtraction, elapsed time, fractions. I use numbers lines in almost every math unit and it uses up a lot of paper if you're printing them. Dry erase ones are well worth the cost! You can get basic 0-20 ones or ones that show both positive and negative numbers for older students. I love how number lines let students see the distance between two quantities. Such an important concept!
What I'm talking about here are the red and yellow two-sided counters. These are so very useful at any grade level - from simple counting, to addition and subtraction, to learning about probability. Need to make arrays? Get out the colored counters! Need to make ten partners? Colored counters! They are so versatile that you'll find yourself using them all the time. They even work great as game pieces and bingo card markers! You can even get magnetic counters which make it so easy to model during whole group instruction.
Dice are great for more than just playing games. You can have students roll two and multiply. Roll two (or three) and add. Roll two and subtract. You get the idea! Dice are also great for teaching probability and volume! If you teach kindergarten, try using them during small group instruction. Roll a pair of dice and see who can tell you the number shown first. Being able to recognize quantities in various arrangements is an important skill.
You would be surprised at how many ways you can use a deck of cards in the math classroom! One of my favorite games when I taught kindergarten and first grades was the tens game. To play, remove all of the face cards from the deck. Keep only the ace through nines. Pass them out, one to each student. When you say GO, students try to find a partner they can make a ten with as quickly as possible. It was super simple and short, but the kids loved it!
Playing cards are also great for sequencing, addition, subtraction, and building large numbers. For older students, try laying out a line of cards. Have them place commas in the right spots and figure out what the number is. You might use cards so much that you'll want to get a class set.
Understanding shapes is one of those things that takes a lot of spatial reasoning. It can be very abstract without having something to hold, turn, and look at from different angles. Geometric solids can be purchased in solid wood, foam, or plastic. Some of the plastic ones are transparent to give students a more detailed view of angles and edges. No matter what type you get, having a set of solid shapes for your students to use will really help them develop a better understanding of shapes and their properties.
If there was an award for the most useful classroom supply, I think it would go to the whiteboard! If you want to save paper, you'll definitely want a class set of these. I let my students use whiteboards all day long. In math, they use them to work out problems, draw models, keep score, check each other's work, and to show me their answers during whole group. I also have them bring their whiteboards to my table (or the floor) for guided math groups.
A cheap way to get whiteboards for your classroom is to buy shower board at your local hardware store. These usually come in a big 8' sheet. The store will USUALLY cut it for you into smaller boards. Just tell them you're a teacher and you really need it for your students. I think I paid about $15 for a board at Home Depot and that was all I needed. For erasers, you can use socks or buy inexpensive foam ones.
Hundred charts are another item you'll use all time. You can certainly save some money by printing these yourself. I like to print them on card stock and then laminate, so the kids can write on them with dry erase marker. Hundred charts are great for teaching number patterns, skip counting, and as an aid for addition and subtraction. If you teach in the primary grades, this is a definite must-have!
Snap cubes are those colored plastic blocks that can be connected together. They are just the right size for little hands and they just look like fun! Snap cubes are great for learning to count, add, and subtract. But my favorite use is for teaching measurement. They are great for measuring in non-standard units! Or if you are teaching standard measurement, students can snap together different lengths of cubes and then get out the ruler to see how long they are. This eliminates having to find a bunch of objects to measure.
The last manipulative to round out my list is a set of fraction tiles. These are pretty specific to grades that teach fractions but if that's you, you need these! Fractions, especially equivalent ones, can be hard to teach without some hands-on practice. Understanding parts of a whole and how they compare becomes so much easier when you have a concrete model to look at. Most children don't have the ability to accurately draw fraction models or fractions on a number line. This becomes a real problem when they are learning to compare fractions. That's where fraction tiles really make a difference.
So that's my list! Now you're ready to arm your students with the tools they need for math success!