Using Math Manipulatives

What are math manipulatives?
A math manipulative is an educational term for anything you can get your fingers around that you can count or measure with.

Why use math manipulatives?
They can help a child understand a math concept by visualizing what is being taught rather then just looking at numbers. They are a way to explore math beyond an abstract thought on a sheet of paper.

Here are a list of manipulatives that come in handy throughout the elementary years:

1. Base ten blocks, or counting blocks are all the same color, generally. The child focuses on the size of the blocks and can easily identify between a ten and a hundred. They can learn to add and subtract by learning the decimal system, which is units, tens, hundreds, thousands etc…

2. Cuisenaire rods start with a 1 cm. cube and gradually advance to 10cm with each length changing colors. The child learns how many each color stands for and can add, subtract, multiply, divide, do fractions etc. with these rods.

3. Pattern blocks are good for teaching patterns: green triangle, yellow hexagon, green triangle, yellow hexagon….what comes next? You can learn fractions, geometry shapes, tessellations patterns that fit inside another shape). And, these make a great quiet activity for all ages to sit and play with. There are numerous books that you can find that compliment these blocks.

4. Money! You can teach counting by 1’s with pennies, 5’s with nickles, 10’s with dimes, and 25’s with quarters. When you do this, you are teaching the value of money and prepping them for learning their multiplication facts.

5. M&M’s are a fun way to learn how to add, subtract, multiply and divide while providing colorful little melt-in-your-mouth candy to snack on. You can get a book called M&M Chocolate Candy Math that has fun activities to do with M&M’s.

6. Straws can be used for measuring things like desks, couches, tables, rooms, or a child’s height. It’s fun to find out how many straws an object’s length is. This is a pre-cursor to measuring with inches and meters later on. You can also use straws taped up in bundles of 10 and play estimating games.

Some math programs are designed for us with math manipulatives. Here’s a short list of a few to look into, if you do not want to come up with your own math curriculum:

Written by Brenda, classically eclectic mother of 5. You can find her writing about her homeschooling journey at Tie That Binds Us.

Angie Kauffman
Angie, a domestically challenged nerd and mom of three very fun kids, is the founder of Real Life at Home.  Angie also listens to music every chance she gets, writes eBookspodcastsloves Pinterestdocuments the little moments in life on Instagram, and occasionally sleeps.


  1. Jenny says

    Great list. We love Math-U-See blocks!

    My daughter also likes to make patterns, count and sort all kinds of things from beads, buttons and more.

  2. pucktricks says

    Don't forget paper clips or counting bears. Both of those are great too. The paper clips are perfect for early measuring units because it's about an inch if you use the small ones.