David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.
What are Math Manipulatives?
Math manipulatives are physical objects that help students learn math concepts using hands-on activity. It's a very good way of introducing new math concepts, because students can understand things in the physical world much easier, before progressing onto pure numbers.
Math manipulatives are useful and fun, but sets of math manipulatives can be expensive. It is therefore often better to find ways to create them with items you find around your home, or things that can be bought cheaply. Let's take a look at some basic homemade math manipulatives.
Homemade Math Manipulatives
Here are a few ideas for homemade math manipulatives:
- Counters: why buy expensive counters that are nothing more than simple pieces of plastic? Far cheaper and easier is to use packs of pencil erasers, rainbow beads, dried beans of different colors, or even Cheerios.
- Lacing: lacing activities can be useful for counting and patterns. Rather than buying expensive lacing sets, why not go with large and cheap packs of beads and a simple ball of string?
- Marshmallow and toothpick shapes: when teaching shapes, nothing is cheaper or more versatile than marshmallows and toothpicks. You can make any shape you could imagine, and reuse the toothpicks as many times as you want.
- Sets and sorting: so maybe you have plenty of manipulatives for counting, whether beads, dried beans, or pencil erasers. But when learning about sets or division, you need something to sort them into. You could use zip lock bags, but try more durable and user-friendly solutions like egg boxes, ice trays, or muffin pans.
- Random questions: you can have students create their own math questions by generating random numbers. This can be done with playing cards or dice. You can even get gaming die sets with dice that go up to different numbers (four sided d4, six sided d6, eight sided d8, 20 sided d20, and many more). For an even cheaper option, simply cut a piece of card or thick paper into squares, and write numbers on those squares. You can even create a paper dice by printing out a box net, cutting it out, and gluing it together.
- Currency: this math manipulative is probably the most obvious, but there's no need to buy plastic and paper money, which is often more expensive than the real thing. Use pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and dollar bills. Not only does this work just as well, but it gets them used to real-life money.
- The wonders of building bricks: Building bricks can be used as a math manipulative in numerous ways. They can be used for patterns, counting, and shapes. The spots on top of each cube can also be used to represent numbers. For example, 6+6 = 12 can be calculated by simply putting two 2x3 bricks alongside each other and counting the dots.
- Building bricks number line: For a more involved example, you can even create a number line by building a long thin construction from two or three layers of bricks, all of the same color. Then another colored brick can be used as a pointer that can be moved from place to place along the line.
- Time: teaching and learning about the time is easy with the help of an old clock. Simply remove the face of the clock, and you can manipulate the hands in whatever way you'd like.
- Volume: kitchen measuring cups and spoons can be used to help students learn about volume. You can count how many teaspoons fit into a tablespoon, and how many tablespoons fit into a cup.
- Place value: Place value manipulatives can be made in lots of ways. One of the cheapest is probably using toothpicks. Sets of 10 toothpicks can be taped together to form tens, and with enough patience the same can be done for hundreds. Popsicle sticks also a good option, though it might take a while to save up enough of them. And like with a lot of things, there are always building bricks.
- Numbers and symbols: it's often useful to have numbers and symbols that can be moved around to form addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems. Sets of fridge magnets are good for this, but you can make an alternative at home by simply saving up milk caps, and writing numbers and symbols (+, -, =, etc.) on them.
- Fractions: anything circular that can be cut into slices is great for fractions. One of the most common and easy options is a set of paper plates.
- Edible manipulatives: to really add some fun to an activity, you can use edible manipulatives. Examples include Cheerios, marshmallows, skittles, lucky charms, or M&Ms.
- Answering questions: when you want to manipulative that involves a way for students to clearly answer questions on the manipulative itself, you can use clothespins to great effect. Give students a question and four possible answers on a card, and they can attach the clothes pin to the correct answer. They can also be used to attach questions and answers together, creating fun matching activities.
There are many more where these came from - take a look around your home, or at cheap items in your local store. Be creative and think of ways you can turn simple items into math equipment.
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