Math manipulatives: you’ve probably seen them in your child’s classroom. The manipulatives might be in the form of beans, popsicle sticks, erasers, tiles, blocks, and the list could go on and on. Have you ever wondered why teachers use all these items during math lessons?
Math scholars have been using hands-on stuff to teach math for centuries. Just think about the first abacus as one of the earliest math manipulatives. We have come a long way since the abacus. Today, there are items that your child can manipulate: stuff they can touch, move, and handle to help them understand math concepts. Just think about how many times you have used your fingers to count off something or used play money in a board game. Those are math manipulatives at work. Here are a few ways that these items can make a real difference in the classroom when it comes to helping students understand math.
Understanding Abstract Ideas
Mathematical concepts such as adding, subtracting, dividing, and multiplying can seem very abstract to young children. By using items that a student can touch, manipulate, and organize on their own, those concepts become more concrete. For example, if a student is given 25 straws and asked how many there are, s/he can count them one-by-one or organize them into 5 groups, each containing 5 straws. That is the foundation of understanding multiplication and division. Understanding how grouping can lead to multiplication then makes that math process become more real to a student because they saw it with their own eyes.
Student Engagement Increases
Some students naturally understand math concepts, while others need to be able to relate the concept to something in their own life. For students who need a little help, manipulatives can get them more involved and engage them in the process further. With the math now lifted off the paper and put in a child’s hands, they become more interested and invested in the process and outcome of the problem-solving.
Students Gain Ownership of their Learning
Using items such as teddy bear counters, straws, or Legos can help a child take control over their own understanding of math concepts. When students use manipulatives to create and use representations to organize, record, and communicate their mathematical ideas, they begin to develop a more positive math disposition and take ownership of their own learning.
Student Confidence Grows
In the years before teachers regularly used manipulatives, students were left waiting to hear from an adult if their math work was correct or incorrect. Now with items on a child’s desk they can physically confirm their reasoning with the evidence in front of them. This can give students a powerful feeling that they are in control of their learning.
Ask your child about math manipulatives s/he uses in class. I think you will be surprised to see how far your child’s learning can come using these items under the guidance of our teachers. Here are a few resources about further benefits that manipulatives create in the classroom.