What Math Manipulatives Do You Really Need?

Updated: Mar 4

I often get asked about math manipulatives from educators.

  • Do you really need all those math manipulatives?

  • Where do you put them?

  • How do you keep the students from just playing with them?

I always answer with a resounding yes! to needing math manipulatives. If you have read my other blog posts, you know the research from Jerome Bruner on concrete-pictorial-abstract. He found that students need that concrete experience to make sense of new concepts. Their hands are moving while their minds are processing. (Please note that this post contains affiliate links that support the work of this site.)

Think of a new concept you may have to learn like putting together a robot or changing a tire. While reading about it can be helpful, seeing it and even experiencing it helps the concept to make more sense. It provides more of a context for what's actually happening. In fact, Jerome Bruner wasn't the only one who found this. A popular quote from Maria Montessori says, "What the hand does, the mind remembers."

Choosing what manipulatives you want in your math program can be a lofty goal. Often textbooks come with their own list, but these can be rather costly. I've encouraged educators to think about their must haves. What are the tools that you must have in your curriculum? What are the things you will use most often? This can be a great way to consider what you actually need, especially if you are on a budget. (And don't forget all those resale pages on Facebook!) Check out some of my favorites that I've used over the years.

I have shared several of my favorite manipulatives on my Video Library Page. These videos are currently free and highlight the items that I would really want to have in my classroom.

You may also see these lists I have created for you organized by my Must Haves and things that are Nice to Have. Click on the link below to download your own copy of each list. While this isn't specific to any particular program, it highlights the most common manipulatives.

The final thing to consider is how to store them and actually use them within a classroom setting. (I will talk more about distance learning in a minute.) Due to the new guidelines from the CDC, most students will probably need their own individual manipulative kit. Consider which manipulatives lend themselves to this idea like base ten blocks (make picture copies for hundreds and thousands), counters, connecting cubes, and fraction sets. Things that can't be placed in an individual kit may have to be used as a learning station for students to use individually.