Simple DIY Math Manipulatives for Your Elementary Classroom

DIY Math Manipulatives Tactile and Kinesthetic Learning

Using math manipulatives are better for brain development than a computer game or app.  Children’s brains need the hands on experience, especially tactile or kinesthetic learners.

A very close relative is teaching her third grade students remotely, due to the global pandemic.

During a recent conversation, she shared that she insisted on having her students use math manipulatives rather than a suggested virtual program.  However, her students don’t have access to the manipulatives that are in her classroom. 

One, I couldn’t help but pat her on the back for recognizing that her students would benefit more from using math manipulatives rather than yet another screen!

Two, I shared a simple solution to her problem.  Maybe you’ve already thought of this but just in case…

Why Math Manipulatives are Important for Children

If you’re reading my other posts, you know how strongly I feel about multi-sensory learning. Kids don’t just like learning using their senses, they NEED it!

Their brains and nervous systems require more input than an adult.  Giving hands on learning opportunities, such as math manipulatives, allows for greater learning and retention.

The touch receptors in the hands take up a large part of the brain. (Similar to the mouth, as mentioned in Wake the Brain with Proven Oral Sensory Activities.)

Adding touch and movement (kinesthetic learning) increases a child’s ability to learn.  And they are more likely to remember what they learned.

When children move objects to see the math in front of them, it makes much more sense!  Manipulating objects for math also improves problem solving abilities in the brain.

Furthermore, an added bonus that I appreciate as an occupational therapist, is that certain math manipulatives can improve fine motor skills. 

With changes in the way children play, they often miss some opportunities to strengthen their hands or work on coordination and dexterity… important skills that are needed to perform school tasks!

Household Items that Can be Used for Math Manipulatives

This is just the start of a list that could go on and on!  I’m sure you’ll get the idea of what you can use around your house. 

Many toy building sets and/or games already have pieces that could work.

Example DIY Math Manipulatives

  • Small erasers
  • Paper clips
  • Binder clips
  • Cotton balls or pom poms
  • Q-tips (cut in half)
  • Old broken crayon or chalk pieces
  • Bottle caps
  • Balls of tissue paper
  • Folded construction paper (see image)
  • Dry cereal such as Cheerios (use a string or two if needed)
  • Small cracker squares
  • Bingo, counting or poker chips
  • Small beads from a craft kit
  • Small stacking blocks
  • Blocks from Jenga
  • Small Lego’s (preferably all the same size)
  • Linking cubes
  • Snap beads
  • Small figurines
  • Solid magnets (similar size and shape)
  • Lacing shapes or beads
  • Building set pieces (discs, gears, connecting tubes, etc)
  • Small Squigz pieces
  • Zoob Tubes
  • Game pieces

Additional Thoughts when Using the Items

It’s helpful to find out from your teacher how many items would be good to have.  About 24 of each item would be an ideal start.  More or less may be needed depending on the math concepts being addressed.

When collecting household items, it will be less visually distracting if you choose similar shapes and sizes.  (Lego’s or building set pieces of the same size or all round magnets.)

To help stay organized (and for added fine motor skill practice), place the items in either a Ziploc bag or a plastic container with a lid (peel or twist lid.) This helps work on bilateral coordination.

Just in case you’d rather invest in a math manipulative set that’s also great for fine motor strengthening, I’ve listed some options below.

[Amazon affiliate links are used below for your convenience. Develop Learn Grow may earn a small commission from the Amazon link at no additional cost to you. See full disclaimer and privacy policy for more information.]

Check out these examples from Amazon:

For More Movement, Tactile or Kinesthetic Input for Your Students:

Movement Activities to Enhance Learning

Tactile Learning: A Unique Hands On Activity

Brain Breaks for Kids using the Proprioceptive System

Art Projects for Kids that Support Reading, Writing & Math Skills

Follow on Social


School-Based OT

Amy Hathaway MOT, OTR/L, CIMI-2 is a licensed and registered occupational therapist.  She is the founder of Develop Learn Grow. 

Amy has 21 years of experience as a pediatric occupational therapist.   She enjoys collaborating with teachers, parents, therapists, administrators, and support staff in preschools & schools, as well as coaching and guiding parents of infants and toddlers in their homes.

She is married and has three children.  Click to read Amy’s bio.  

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This