We are often asked what manipulatives students need to develop strong number sense and math proficiency. The short answer is to look for items that are budget-friendly and can be used to reinforce a variety of concepts.
In the lower-elementary grades, students regularly count various objects and sort them into their own selected groupings. One way to collect them is to invite parents to donate items such as beans, buttons, washers, pom-poms from a craft store, wooden craft sticks, bingo chips, and other small, easy-to-count items. This provides students with a wide variety of objects from which to choose, which keeps them excited and engaged. Such items are relatively inexpensive and can be used for a wide variety of concepts within math.
In addition, the following items are worth collecting and are extremely versatile:
Centimeter cubes—These are great for counting, creating patterns, and measuring.
One-inch color tiles—These tiles can be used with students from lower-elementary school all the way up through eighth grade. They are extremely versatile and useful for many math concepts such as counting, estimating, measuring, creating patterns, and much more.
Dominoes—Great for reinforcing operational skills, dominoes are also useful for students who are working on subitizing, the ability to know how many items are present without needing to count.
Pattern blocks—Students can use pattern blocks to help with creating patterns and geometric shapes, as well as understanding angles. I have even used these blocks with students in middle school when teaching equations.
Dice—One of the most versatile manipulatives, dice can be used to teach probability and operations. They are also useful as key components of games and activities that reinforce skills and concepts.
Number spinners—These, too, are extremely versatile. Like dice, they support probability and can be used for games and activities to reinforce skills and concepts.
Two-color counters—These counters are easy for students to use when learning about patterns, number operations, and counting. The magnetic version works well for an individual student activity using a baking sheet with an empty ten frame outlined on the sheet.
Unifix cubes—These cubes are great for early foundational math skills such as counting, patterning, and number operations.
Muffin pans and baking sheets—I used these all the time in my lower-elementary classroom. Baking sheets are useful for marking off blank ten frames with tape. Muffin tins can be used for a variety of sorting activities, counting, or reinforcing addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Having several sizes of muffin tins allows you to differentiate for students more easily.
Experiment and find manipulatives that work well for you and your students. For some students, mathematics can seem abstract and challenging. With a full library of inexpensive but effective manipulatives, you can transform learning mathematics into fun. And as we all know, students who are having fun learn faster and better!