math manipulatives

Hands-on is a great benefit when learning. This is especially true of beginning math concepts. It combines motor skills and visualization with math which builds connections. The more ways a kid has to learn the better. However, constantly changing manipulatives for numerical concepts tends to confuse kids. Some programs use many different manipulatives within the same grade (bears, blocks, cups, balls, etc). I can understand using different things for teaching sizes, shapes, and money. However, when it comes to numerical concepts, it is best to have one constant set of manipulatives.

My son found the cute bear counters that are so popular distracting. He kept trying to play with them and tell stories about them but didn’t get much math done.  What math he did do, he had trouble remembering from one lesson to the next. This is great and fine in preschool or even early kindergarten, but not into first grade.

One of the things I like best about Math-U-See is their manipulatives. They are base-10 type blocks glued together to form 1-10 and 100. Each number is a different color (simular to the Montessouri system’s Cuisenaire rods except they’re other colors). This helps learners to visualize for example 4 (yellow) + 2 (orange)=6 (purple). It also uses the same blocks for each lesson and all levels so kids don’t have to re-learn maniplatives. This style of block/rod has a self check built in which helps with independence. 5+2 is the same length as 7. You can’t miscount manipulatives like with the bears. Since each number is a different color it is quick and easy to tell which numbers you are using at a glance. They also lesson dependence upon counting to find the answer which improves retention and speed.

Someone gave us a great collection of manipluatives. They are the MacMillan Early Skills Manipluatives. I think this is a mail subscription thing when they mail you one set at a time. I don’t have them all. There is a teacher guide for each set that lists games and activities which are three hole punched into a notebook. The pages are reproducible so you can do each activity multiple times. Many of the sets also have laminated cards of sorting and pattern activities. The ones I have are Count & Sort, Pattern Blocks, Dinosaur Math, Bear Family Math, and Links. I don’t have Farm Animal Math, Geoboards (I got some at a yard sale that aren’t part of this set), Mini-Motors Math, Money, Pentominoes, Tangrams, and Time. The complete collection would make a wonderful preschool or early elementary supplementary math program for counting and other non numerical problems which most people supplement. They do have small parts and shouldn’t be used with children younger than 3.

So if you have a kid who struggles with math, I would urge you to look into manipulatives. Perhaps he needs more consistency. If your program doesn’t have any manipluatives, consider getting some cuisenaire rods or the manipulatives and blocks from Math-U-See. However, be sure to give them time to play and experiment with them (no matter their age or what type of manipulative you have) on their own before trying to use them the first few times.

Leave me a comment about what you think of math manipulatives. What has been you experience with them? How many of you are using them beyond first grade?


4 Responses

  1. The rods seem to be universally helpful. I believe that the true test of the lasting value of manipulatives is, “can you use them further into life? Are they something that the child will relate to forever?”
    The things that pass this test best are coins, marbles, dominoes, darts (for adding and subtracting, in darts games) and playing cards. Being a professional magician, I noticed the value of counting, sorting, memorizing and other skills through the use of cards.
    Then there are the mother of all manipulatives, the “manos” (your hands and fingers). There are so many uses for them in math, and they are the main things that have been used through history.
    Well, I hope you can use my two cents worth.
    I just found your blog. It is very good work, and very thoughtful. I wish you the best of luck with it,
    Yours truly,

    Brian Foley (a.k.a. Professor Homunculus at )

  2. I was taught using manipulatives through algebra (using Math-U-See)

    of course my dad was the guy who wrote the program so I didn’t have much of a choice but it worked great for me 🙂

    Great post.

  3. That’s neat Ethan! Are you the one who inspired this wonderful program or a guinea pig it was tested on? 😉 We really like it. Glad you liked my post.

  4. Brian,
    Yes. Those are some other simple manipulatives. Thanks for the suggestions. I don’t think there is anyone alive who hasn’t used their hands to count at some time.

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