Simple DIY Math Manipulatives for Your Elementary Classroom

Simple Math Manipulatives for Kids

The use of math manipulatives is more beneficial for brain development in young students than any computer game or app.  Children’s brains need the concrete objects during math lessons.  It’s also a great way to give hands-on practice for your visual, tactile and kinesthetic learners.

When a very close relative was teaching her third grade students remotely during the pandemic, she was trying to figure out ways for students to find physical objects at home for their math problems.

Even though they are older students, this amazing teacher insisted on having them use physical manipulatives rather than the school’s suggested virtual manipulatives program.  Since her students didn’t have access to the manipulatives that were in her math centers, she asked me for help!

One, I loved that she recognized that her students would benefit more from a hands-on experience for their virtual math lessons.  I applauded her for enhancing the learning process WITHOUT using a screen for the lesson!

Two, I was excited to share a simple solution to her problem.  At that time, I shared suggestions on DIY math manipulatives using household objects.  The list was useful during remote learning.  But it has also been helpful for kids when doing homework and for elementary students in schools with low budgets. Math manipulative collections don’t have to be pricey, you can use what’s tucked in a cabinet or drawer at home or in the classroom. 

Why The Use of Manipulatives are Important for Children

If you’re reading my other posts, you know how strongly I feel about multi-sensory learning. It’s the way I view learning as a school-based occupational therapist.  Kids don’t just like learning using their senses, they NEED multiple modes of learning!

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

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

Adding a hands-on way to learn increases touch and movement processing (kinesthetic learning) which increases a child’s deeper understanding of a concept.  Additionally, the math manipulatives provide the brain with appropriate visual input.  (Screens give too much fast paced visual input.)  

When children move math objects to see the math in front of them, it makes much more sense!  Children are more likely to remember what they learned.   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 math manipulatives are an easy way to help improve fine motor skills. 

So many kids have weak hands and lack basic fine motor skills. Increased screen use and changes in play contribute to this.

With increased screens and less play, young children often miss some opportunities to strengthen their hands or work on coordination and dexterity which are important skills needed to perform school tasks!

Household Math Manipulatives

Household or Classroom Items that Can be Used for Math Physical Manipulatives

I’m sure you have some favorite math manipulatives that you love using with students of all ages.  If you need more manipulatives for large numbers of kids, or if you want to give your students ideas at home during homework, this list of physical tools should help! 

Many of the physical objects can be found in your office, bathroom, or kitchen.  Others can be found in play areas in toy building sets and games.  Craft sets often have plenty of smaller pieces that could work for math manipulatives.

DIY List of Math Manipulatives Found at Home or School:

  • Small erasers
  • Paper clips
  • Binder clips
  • Sticky notes
  • Cotton balls or pom poms
  • Q-tips (cut in half)
  • Old broken crayon or chalk pieces
  • Bottle caps
  • Playing cards
  • Dice
  • Rubber bands
  • 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
  • Pattern blocks
  • Snap beads
  • Small figurines
  • Solid magnets (similar size and shape)
  • Lacing shapes or beads
  • Geometric shapes from puzzles
  • Building set pieces (discs, gears, connecting tubes, etc)
  • Small Squigz pieces
  • Zoob Tubes
  • Game pieces
  • Unifix cubes or snap cubes
  • Play money

Additional Tips When Using the Items for Math Concepts

In your elementary classroom, you’ll figure out how many items you need for your students.  At the beginning of the year, you could make a wish list for your parents to create objects for your math centers.

When you offer suggestions to parents at home, communicate 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.)  Different colors could be beneficial for adding and subtracting concepts.

To help stay organized and to add fine motor skill practice, place the items in either a Ziploc bag or a plastic container with a lid.  A peel or twist lid works to improve bilateral coordination skills. Using a bag or container helps work on fine motor skills when kids open them up, and then again when they clean up and put the materials away. 

Favorite Math Manipulatives for Every Elementary Classroom

If you don’t need to collect fine motor objects and you’d rather look into a buying a new set, I’ve listed some favorite math manipulatives below.  They’re great for fine motor hand strengthening and building visual perceptual skills needed for math.

[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 favorites:

  • Learning Resources Math Link Cubes or Unifix Cubes – the first set consists of 100 linking snap cubes. The second link has 240 pieces as well as an activity book. They each are a great tool for fine motor strength and grasp development in younger students.
  • Base Ten Blocks for Math – this colorful set has individual units, groups of tens rods, flats and a large cube.  Or check out this starter kit with all the same color. These blocks are helpful for students in kindergarten through third grade, or for special education students. 
  • Learning Resources MathLink Cube Activity Set – This early math activity set is for younger children in preschool or for kindergarten STEM. It includes 115 pieces and activity cards.
  • Simply Magic Magnetic Fraction Tiles & Fraction Circles – This high quality set of math manipulatives are great for learning fractions. They’re wonderful for the classroom or at home.
  • Dry Erase Number Lines – This dry erase number line has two sides: one with numbers to 10 and the other side has up to number 20. It’s a great tool to help with basic addition and subtraction. 
  • Hundreds Charts – These hundreds charts are double sided and laminated. Write on, wipe off.  
  • hand2mind Take Home Manipulatives Kit for Kids – This kit is intended for homeschooling or for homework but is a great classroom addition.  It includes snap cubes base ten blocks, rods, pattern blocks, color tiles, and a learning clock. 

Favorite Math Manipulatives

Related Blog Posts to Improve Fine Motor Skill Development in Kids

Math manipulatives are an easy way to work on fine motor skills. So many young children miss opportunities for important fine motor development.

Fine motor activities and games are important to build hand strength. They help kids develop independence with fine motor and self help tasks. Additionally, hand strengthening activities and games are important for grasp development

Kids also need finger dexterity for daily tasks and writing. These fun games and activities help improve hand dexterity. 

Blog Posts to Improve Visual Skill Development in Kids

Physical manipulatives are helpful for visual learners. In math, they help support visual perceptual skills.  In this blog post, 42 Visual Perceptual Activities That Support Learning, different activities are shared to support all areas of visual perceptual development.  

There are also easy ways to work on visual skills to support math and reading listed in this blog post. Two fun ways to work on visual motor and visual tracking skills can be found in An Easy Visual Motor Activity Using Magnets and using an infinity loop. The post Infinity Loop Activities can be used alone, or with flashcards for reading or math. 

Related Blog Posts to Improve Tactile and Kinesthetic Learning in Kids

As I stated earlier regarding math manipulatives, the hands have so many receptors waiting for input in young children.

Tactile learning activities are are important to continue with kids of all ages. There are so many ways to modify this fun tactile discrimination game that only uses the hands to feel and identify objects. 

Art Projects for Kids are a great to improve fine motor skills, visual perception, attention, and creativity. The skills needed for art projects support skills needed for reading, writing and math.

Additional Sensory Activities to Support Learning

If you’re like me and passionate about whole-brain learning, you recognize that kids need all the right input for their bodies and brains.

All preschool and elementary students need movement input during and in between learning activities. Movement Activities to Enhance Learning offers easy ways to provide physical activity. No equipment is needed!

I also have a post of proprioceptive exercises for kids. There’s a free printable on that blog post so you can keep the exercises handy. Balance activities help with eye muscle development and visual skills.

I hope you enjoy these posts and resources.  Email me in the contact form in the menu if you have any questions, comments, or need any more info from my perspective as a pediatric occupational therapist!

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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 22 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.  

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