Tips for Using Math Manipulatives

As a math teacher, you know the benefits of using manipulatives. They are a vital part of the Concrete-Pictorial-Abstract Theory, which studies have shown to improve student learning in math. Manipulatives allow for an abstract concept to be explored visually and tangibly to help students better understand the concept. It is the hands-on, interactive side of math that so many students enjoy. Manipulatives are also beneficial for differentiated learning and to help students with problem-solving. 

The following are tips for using math manipulatives, both in physical and digital forms.

  • If the manipulative is new to students, begin with a simple explanation of its name and how to use it (i.e. connecting unifix cubes, rotating the hands on a clock, operating various digital manipulatives, etc.). 
  • Start by asking students to represent a problem situation with the manipulative and explain their thinking. Share ideas across the class and across several problems to develop a plan for using this manipulative. Be ready with sample problems for students to solve in case they require examples. 
  • If needed, model how to use the manipulative. This can include you as the teacher demonstrating how to use it, guiding a student in demonstrating it for the rest of the class, or by giving step-by-step verbal prompts as all of your students use the manipulative. 

Physical manipulatives: One benefit of physical manipulatives is that more students can use them simultaneously versus having digital manipulatives used on only one classroom screen or several devices. Here are some tips for using physical manipulatives: 

  • Organize and label manipulatives:
    • Ziplocks are great when storing items in hanging file folders.
    • Plastic pencil boxes or other stackable totes work well for storing items on a shelf.
    • Label the outside of each storage container with how many sets are included. 
  • Use small plastic or metal trays for students to keep the manipulatives in during the lesson:
    • This helps to avoid pieces getting lost in, on, or under desks, or wherever else your kiddos may lose a piece like in their pocket or the hood of their sweatshirt (yes, it has happened).  
  • Give a few minutes to explore and play before or after the lesson:
    • Kids also need unstructured time with manipulatives. This allows them to use the base 10 or unifix blocks to create a tower, the tangrams to create a picture, or fake money to pretend like they’re shopping. 
  • Use manipulatives to foster collaborative learning: 
    • This promotes working with partners, communicating, and taking turns. It is also beneficial for students to problem-solve together to think aloud and present various viewpoints. 

Digital manipulatives: It’s common knowledge that Gen Z and Gen Alpha students are naturally drawn towards digital resources so why not make digital manipulatives part of your lessons? One definite advantage of digital manipulatives is that no storage or cleanup is needed. Also, students have an endless supply of manipulatives so no more running out of 1/4 pieces when the fraction problem requires more than 4 of them. Keep in mind the following as you work with digital manipulatives: 

  • Familiarize yourself with the digital platform you are using. Practice how to add, delete, move, resize, change the color, etc. for your chosen manipulatives. 
  • If the platform has the option, create a queue or folder containing the manipulatives you’ll be using for that day’s lesson. It makes it much faster than having to click through all of the options to find what you need. 

Have you heard about our partnership with Brainingcamp, a cutting-edge digital manipulatives provider? By combining our Stepping Stones elementary math curriculum with Brainingcamp’s innovative digital manipulatives, this collaboration brings more immersive and engaging learning experiences to Pre-K-6 learners, with a research-based and conceptual approach to teaching mathematics designed to make math meaningful, enjoyable, and accessible for all learners.

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ORIGO Education has partnered with educators for over 25 years to make math learning meaningful, enjoyable and accessible to all.

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