I receive so many questions from elementary teachers across the country (and world) about math manipulatives: Why should I be using math manipulatives in my classroom? Which math manipulatives do I need for my classroom? How do I organize and store all of these math manipulatives in my classroom? In this blog post, I answer all of these questions and much much more! We’ll dive into ALL things math manipulatives for first, second, third, fourth, and fifth grade classrooms (which will apply to special education and homeschool settings as well).

**This blog post will…**

- explain what math manipulatives are and why they are important
- suggest organization and storage ideas for math manipulatives
- recommend where to purchase math manipulatives
- provide tips for how to take care of them so they last a long time
- highlight the best ones for teaching specific math concepts and skills

**What are Math Manipulatives?**

The definition or meaning of a math manipulative is an object that students can use (or manipulate) to better understand a math concept or skill, resulting in them developing a deep **conceptual understanding** of the content. This empowers students to learn foundational and complex concepts and skills through developmentally appropriate hands-on learning experiences.

Math manipulatives are often given to classroom teachers by their school district; however, this is not always the case. Sometimes teachers need to find, buy, make, or print their own math manipulatives to supplement what they are given. No matter the case, every elementary classroom must have an abundance of math manipulatives to support student learning.

**What are the Different Types of Math Manipulatives?**

There are a lot of different kinds of math manipulatives and they even come in many different formats. They each serve a very important purpose. Here are the 3 most popular formats:

**Virtual**: I often get asked the question, “What are virtual math manipulatives?” Virtual math manipulatives are online and can be accessed using a desktop computer, laptop, iPad, or interactive white board. These are sometimes offered through curriculum programs or for free online. These are a great option, but should be accompanied with ones students can manipulate and hold in their hands.**Printable**: You can buy sets online and then print, cut, and assemble them. This is a cheap DIY option, but this homemade choice often needs to be replaced each year because of the usual wear and tear they get from being used.**Plastic or Foam**: This option is more expensive, but it is incredibly important for students to have access to these. In addition, it is important for you to have your own set as well so that you can use them for modeling. It’s an extra cost, but I recommend splurging (hopefully with your school budget) and getting a magnetic set for yourself! They are great for being displayed and used on your white board in your**whole group area**.

**Why are Math Manipulatives Important?**

How do math manipulatives help elementary students? Why should I use math manipulatives in my classroom? Is it really that important? I get tons of questions like these. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of math manipulatives in elementary classrooms. The benefits are truly limitless! Most importantly, they help students visualize and understand important math concepts and skills, making learning developmentally appropriate and engaging.

You may have heard about the concrete, pictorial, and abstract approach. It’s the idea that students must first have a concrete understanding of a concept or skill, which they develop through the use of math manipulatives. For example, they work with base ten blocks to help them add two-digit numbers together. Next, they can move onto the pictorial stage. Using the same example, they would draw the base ten blocks on a piece of paper to help them add the numbers. Lastly, they move onto the abstract stage. Again, using the same example, they add the numbers together using the standard algorithm. If students do not become proficient in the concrete phase, which is where the use of math manipulatives comes in, then they are missing a large part of their learning. This further exemplifies why elementary students need to be using math manipulatives.

**How Do I Organize and Store My Math Manipulatives?**

I go into detail about how to organize math manipulatives in my **guided math resource**, but here are 3 things to consider when thinking about math manipulatives organization and storage:

- Come up with an organization and storage system before you go back to school so 1) your students can learn the procedures and routines at the start of the school year and 2) you are focused on maintaining rather than try to come up with systems when you are in the midst of a busy school year.
- Some math manipulatives need to be accessible year round, while others only need to be available part of the school year.
- Storing math manipulatives in clear containers or labeling containers makes it easy for you and your students to find what you are looking for. I offer a set of math manipulative labels in my
**Classroom Organization Bundle**.

**Where Can I Buy Math Manipulatives?**

Here’s where to buy math manipulatives:

- Amazon
- Lakeshore
- Hand2Mind
- EAI Education
- Oriental Trading
- Dollar Store
- Target
- Walmart

**How Do I Clean My Math Manipulatives?**

Here are 3 ideas for how to clean your math manipulatives:

- Fill up your sink with water and dish soap and soak the math manipulatives in them.
- Put the math manipulatives in a mesh laundry bag and put the bag in the dishwasher.
- Ask for a parent volunteer to take them home and clean them.

**What are the Best Math Manipulatives?**

Below are the best elementary math manipulatives for teaching all of the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth grade math concepts and skills outlined by the Common Core standards (but it applies to TEKS and other state standards as well for grades 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5). They are not organized by grade level, but you can look at the concepts listed below to see which ones apply to your grade level (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th). It’s important to note that these math manipulatives apply to both general and special education students.

**Operations and Algebraic Thinking**- Addition and subtraction
- Ten frame
- Dominoes
- Dice
- Unifix cubes
- Rekenrek
- Base ten blocks
- Two color counters
- Dinosaur/bear/bug counters
- Abacus
- Even and odd
- Two color counters
- Dinosaur/bear/bug counters
- Rows and columns
- Dinosaur/bear/bug counters
- Geoboards
- Multiplication and division
- Dice
- Dinosaur/bear/bug counters
- Patterns
- Pattern blocks
- Dinosaur/bear/bug counters
- Two color counters
- Unifix cubes

**Number and Operations in Base Ten**- Counting and skip counting
- Counting bears
- Counters
- Unifix cubes
- Place value
- Base ten blocks (thousands, hundreds, tens, and ones)
- Rounding
- Slide-A-Round
- Decimals
- Decimal tiles
- Base ten decimal frame

**Number and Operations – Fractions**- Fractions
- Fraction bars
- Fraction tiles
- Fraction squares
- Fraction circles
- Unifix cubes

**Measurement and Data**- Length
- Tape measurer
- Ruler
- Yard stick
- Meter stick
- Time
- Clocks
- Elapsed time ruler
- Graphing
- Cuisenaire rods
- Geoboard
- Money
- U.S. coins
- U.S. bills
- Cash register
- Volume
- Geosolids
- Five piece plastic liquid measurement set (gallon, half gallon, quart, pint, and cup)
- Mass
- Balance scale
- Area and perimeter
- Geoboards
- 1 inch tiles
- Angles
- Protractor
- Angle circles
- Anglegs
- Geoboards

**Geometry**- 2D shapes and 3D shapes
- Geometric shapes
- Pattern blocks
- Geosolids
- Rows and columns
- Dinosaur/bear/bug counters
- Lines
- Geoboards
- Ruler
- Symmetry
- Tangrams
- Georeflector mirror
- Geoboards

**15 Math Manipulatives on a Budget**

You might be thinking, “I understand how important it is for my students to be using math manipulatives, but my school doesn’t have room in the budget for adding more math manipulatives in my classroom.” Because of this common problem, I brainstormed a short list of math manipulatives you can access for free or at a low cost.

- Buttons
- Bottle caps
- Board game pieces
- String
- Pipe cleaners
- Popsicle sticks
- Beads
- Pom poms
- Tiny erasers
- Paper squares
- Beans
- Corn kernels
- Seashells
- Pinecones
- Rocks