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Tips on Using Math Manipulatives in The Classroom

In most elementary school classrooms, you will see manipulatives – bins of blocks, cubes, counters, and other materials that aid in mathematical learning. The role of manipulatives in understanding mathematics concepts is simple; help students better understand abstract concepts by representing with concrete objects. As a 6th grade teacher for ten years, I used manipulatives in my classroom, but I recognized that many of my colleagues that taught younger kids were more effective in integrating manipulatives into their daily math classrooms. Like any teaching tool, manipulatives must be used strategically in order to be effective. Here are five tips for using math manipulatives in the classroom:

1. Decide their purpose and share with students

Before introducing manipulatives into the classroom, teachers need to know why the objects are helpful in helping their students discover and learn. Tell your class! Don’t keep this powerful reasoning a secret. Let the students know why you choose those specific manipulatives. Manipulatives are most effective at helping students learn math when students understand why and how they are beneficial. They may even have feedback for you during your math community conversation after the activity.

2. Set a routine and expectations
Help the students understand the expectations while using the manipulatives. All teachers know not to pass out anything to students’ hands until the behavior expectations are clear. Once the class has their manipulatives for the first time, give them a few minutes to play to get their curiosity out of their system, then pull them back for the lesson. If you want them to help put things away respectfully, don’t forget to model and practice. Set a routine for how to work with the manipulatives: the gathering, working and putting away should become a daily routine.

3. Use many different types of manipulatives
It is important for all students to see and find value in several different manipulatives. Let them explore with many different types of manipulatives. The students appreciate autonomy in choosing the math aids they think will be best for their own learning. Allowing the students to find their own learning through these manipulatives is a perfect example of incorporating the Standards of Mathematical Practice you’re your mathematics classroom.

4. Group work is beneficial
Using manipulatives in the classroom is an amazing way for kids to not only explain, but also show their thinking for any mathematical concepts. Small group or partner work is an easy way to allow every student to explain their ideas aloud and get feedback. By having the students share with each other, they are communicating their thoughts, showing examples and taking turns in listening and sharing, which are all important skills to learn and practice.

5. Incorporate virtual manipulatives
Keeping a multitude of manipulatives on hand can become expensive and proves to be an issue for storage. For several reasons, many educators are beginning to incorporate virtual manipulatives into their lessons to drive home difficult concepts. Teachers who use adaptive learning systems as a part of a blended learning program already have access to numerous virtual manipulatives. The National Library of Virtual Manipulatives can expand resources even further.

Looking for more innovative ways to help your students learn math? Check out this free set of teacher tools from DreamBox.

Kelly Urlacher

Curriculum Designer at DreamBox Learning
Kelly Urlacher began her career as a sixth grade teacher in Sammamish, WA in 2002. Shortly after, she received her Master’s in Education with an emphasis in Technology and Curriculum Development. After years of dedicating herself to students and education within the classroom, she earned her National Board Certification in 2009. Kelly currently works as a Curriculum Designer for DreamBox Learning and continues tutoring high school students in mathematics.