Math Manipulatives: Why Use Them?

Math manipulatives make math easier to understand, especially in the younger years. If you can only buy a few, these are my top choices.

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I love living math!  Thus, the title of my how-to book, Loving Living Math.  Living math is special for so many reasons!  One of those reasons is the use of math manipulatives.

What are math manipulatives?

Math manipulatives are things your children touch, move – ahem, manipulate – in order to understand various math concepts.  Manipulatives can be store-bought, homemade or even simple objects you have around the house.

Math manipulatives make math easier to understand, especially in the younger years. If you can only buy a few, these are my top choices.

Why are math manipulatives part of a good living math curriculum?

The purpose of math manipulatives is two-fold.  First, they help children to form a concrete understanding of abstract concepts.  When a child can “see” that 1/2 + 1/2 = 1 whole by using fraction manipulatives, the oftentimes tough concept of fractions gets a whole lot easier because there is now a picture in the brain of what a fraction really is.  In other words, the manipulatives have helped build brain connections!

Second, manipulatives meet learning styles.  If your child is kinesthetic (learns through movement) or visual (learns through seeing), manipulatives provide the perfect learning environment.  I’ve found, though, that even children who normally thrive linguistically (through language) need math manipulatives to help them “get” certain math concepts because their learning style is words, not numbers.

 What are my favorite math manipulatives?

Math manipulatives make math easier to understand, especially in the younger years.  If you can only buy a few, these are my top choices.

10 Must-Have Manipulatives

Over the years (in homeschooling and teaching in public schools), I’ve consistently found these 10 manipulatives to be the most used and most crucial for understanding tough math concepts.  Having these (or making your own) will be very helpful tools in your homeschool for many years.

1. 100 Board – This can be used with teaching skip counting, all operations, prime numbers, square numbers and much more!

2. Balance – There are many types of primary balances that will compare weights of all kinds.

3. Base Ten Blocks – The concepts of place value and regrouping can be very abstract and hard to grasp. This set of blocks provides a concrete and visual understanding that makes math make more sense.

4. Fraction Circles or Fraction Tiles – Fractions can be tough to grasp for many children, too. A set of fraction tiles or circles helps children see and build relationships between fractions – and that makes a world of difference in understanding.

5. Pattern Blocks (with activity cards) – Pattern blocks not only teach patterning – simple and complex – but geometry, critical thinking and reasoning, as well.

6. Square Color Tiles – We use these tiles all the time in the early years. They come in handy for patterning, measuring, graphing, and more.

7. Snap Cubes – This is another manipulative we use all the time in the early years. The cubes are pretty much used for similar purposes as the square color tiles with even more uses like determining volume and building geometric figures.

8. Student Clock – A simple hands-on clock is imperative for helping children understand minutes within hours.

9. Tangrams (with activity cards) – A tangram set only has seven little pieces, but they pack a big punch when it comes to spatial reasoning.

10. Tessellation Puzzles – Tessellations are repeating patterns gone wild. They repeat up, down and all around without any gaps or overlaps. Puzzles like the one I’ve linked challenge brains!

Nice-to-Have Manipulatives

If you really like the way manipulatives enhance your homeschool and have extra money to spare, each of the following can also be very beneficial tools for mathematics education.  Again, in some cases, you can create your own homemade versions.  You might also be surprised to find a few things you already have around the house as math manipulatives!

Animal Counters

Attribute Blocks


Cuisenaire Rods



Geometric Solids

Measuring Worms

Measuring Tape

Number Tiles

Play Money



Stringing Beads

Unifix Cubes

Math manipulatives make math easier to understand, especially in the younger years. If you can only buy a few, these are my top choices.

How do you use math manipulatives?

There are many books, how-to videos and how-to blog posts to find for any manipulative you buy.  I suggest a simple Google search for your particular needs.

Here are some posts that share how to use a few popular manipulatives.

Using Attribute Blocks

Using Animal Counters

Using Tangrams

Measurement with Manipulatives

Using Linking Cubes to Teach Volume

Using Beads to Teach Classification

Patterning with Manipulatives

Candy as Manipulatives: M&M’s

Candy as Manipulatives: Hearts

Candy as Manipulatives: Various Candies

Play Dough as a Manipulative

Are you excited about math manipulatives?  They are SO good for your homeschool!

Learn more about living math and how to incorporate it successfully in your homeschool with my easy-to-read and easy-to-implement how-to book for parents – Loving Living Math.

Loving Living Math teaches you how to add living math to your homeschool - it's not hard!

More Living Math Resources

Take a look at this Living Math Course to expand your knowledge of living math and how to apply it in your homeschool. There are so many benefits to living math!

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