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 is one of the best ways for students to experience math in a concrete way. 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 concepts through hands-on experience. This is so very important for younger children!
So what are some examples of math manipulatives that should be in every elementary classroom? Here is my Top 10 list of the best ones...
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 really helps kids develop strong number sense. They also let you represent abstract concepts with concrete objects.
Place value blocks have so many uses in an elementary school classroom including:
adding and subtracting
counting and visualizing quantities
understanding place value
creating number patterns
modeling word problems
I could go on and on. Base-ten blocks are one of my favorite math manipulatives because they are so versatile and can be used by students of all ages. 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 had 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. Almost any topic in your math curriculum can be taught using number lines. They are fantastic for problem solving and are an easy way to create visual models of equations. I especially love how number lines let students see the distance between two quantities. Such an important concept!
You can find tons of free printable number lines online, but that uses up a lot of paper. Dry erase ones are well worth the one-time cost! You can get basic 0-20 number lines for younger elementary students (kindergarten to second grade) or ones that show both positive and negative integers for older students.
Many primary classrooms have those cute little teddy bear counters. Those are great (and fun!), but 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 math problems 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 your small group math lessons. Roll a pair of dice and see who can tell you the number shown first. Being able to recognize quantities in different ways and various arrangements (subitizing) is an important skill.
You would be surprised at how many ways you can use a deck of cards in the classroom! One of my favorite games when I taught kindergarten and first grade 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:
building large numbers
number concepts like part-part-whole or missing number
Here's a fun guessing game you can play to build number sense in young children (K to 2) - Pull two number cards from the deck. Show one to the class and hide the other behind your back. Tell them what your total is (the total value of the two cards). See how quickly they can figure out the secret hidden number. This game builds a strong conceptual understanding of numbers that is needed for mental math.
If you teach 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 end up using cards so much that you'll want to get a class set.
Understanding geometric shapes is one of those things that takes a lot of spatial reasoning. It can be very abstract without having concrete manipulatives 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.