Numbers can be a pretty abstract concept for a preschooler to wrap her mind around.  But just as a storybook turns abstract letters into a meaningful story, the abstract concepts of numeracy, patterning, and comparison find real meaning in the objects they represent.  Putting these real objects into the small hands of young children makes the abstract concrete as we connect these math terms and concepts with experiences and  understandings they’ve been building over  a lifetime.

I began thinking of some of my favorite math manipulatives to use with young children and found that while my thoughts began with formal sets you can buy from an educational supplier, my mind soon drifted to those wonderful home-spun manips that are cheap or even free (some of my favorite words when it comes to describing educational supplies).  And of course with these thoughts buzzing in my brain, I began to notice all the ways to turn everyday experiences into a hands-on math experience.

And so, in those categories, here are a few of my favorite math manipulatives to use with young children.

Manips You Can Buy:

Unifix Cubes:  I love these versatile blocks!  They’re great for counting and stacking as a visual representation of numbers.  It’s easy to see that 8 is bigger than 2 when you see the two standing side by side!  They’re perfect for a quick and easy bar graph as well as pattern building and hands-on adding and subtracting.  Plus, if you hand a basket of these to a group of children, they could explore, play, and create freely for quite some time.  That’s always a good sign of a wonderful manip!

Pattern Blocks:  If you really want children to understand shapes, they have to hold them, build with them, make patterns with them, sort them, and compare them.  Pattern blocks fit the bill here, and kids love them!

Cheap or Free:

Largely, the purpose of math manipulatives is to provide a concrete, movable object to represent each part of a number in a one-to-one ratio (one object, count one number).  This gives meaning to numbers and story problems and turns math into an experience instead of just another subject.  You can buy counting bears, but really all you need is an assortment of physical items that can be counted and sorted.  Here are a few items that meet those requirements without a trip to a specialty store:  buttons, dry beans, craft pom poms, plastic lids, coins, bottle caps, beads. 

Invent hands-on games using dice or number cards (I like using spare Phase 10 decks).  Add either one to a board game you already have or create one by simply drawing a path of squares.  Use favorite toys like cars, animal figures, or little people to advance along a counting game you can create together!

 On the Fly:

We’ve all heard the complaint from someone somewhere along the road: Why do I need to know this stuff?  If you really want the children you love and teach to see math as something that they use in the real world, well, then you have to take advantage of opportunities for them to use it in the real world!  Here are a few ways to do just that:

Let them use the scales at the grocery store.  Count apples as you add, read and compare the weight.

Use snacks to sort, count, make patterns, and of course, subtract! 

Make your own counting travel mix.

Find patterns in striped socks, polka-dotted ties, and checked shirts.

Set the table together!  One plate for each person is one-to-one counting in action.

Make collections of treasures to sort, count, and compare.

What are your favorite ways to make math a hands-on experience for the little ones you love and teach?

Top photo by John Evans.

Button photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian.



Leave a Reply