Math Manipulatives: Little Things That Make Learning Math Easier

As adults, we forget that in order to understand math, kids have to learn some pretty high-level concepts. Number and quantity, size, measurement, comparison, shape, proportion and volume are just a few of the concepts first graders are working on.

Kids need to experience these concepts in their world, with their hands and bodies, before math will make sense on paper. Math manipulatives—objects that teach about a math area—are one way to bring hands-on practice to math learning.

Essential First Grade Math Tools

I have found that 12 simple tools make up a pretty complete first-grade tool kit for hands-on learning. Here they my favorites:

  1. Base Ten Blocks
  2. Play Money
  3. Counters
  4. Dice
  5. Fraction Strips
  6. Geometric Solids
  7. Hundreds Chart
  8. Number Line
  9. Playing Cards
  10. Timer
  11. Unifix Cubes
  12. White Board

Click on the links above or the picture boxes below to get creative ideas for how to use these with your kids.

base ten blocks, base 10 blocks

Base 10 Blocks

The best tool for helping kids understand, add, and subtract large numbers.

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learning to count money

Coins or Play Money

Essential for learning to count money and make change.

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bear counters


Use these for counting, adding, subtracting, comparing numbers, early multiplication, and more.

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3D geometric solids figures


Use dice to turn almost any math skill or concept into a game.

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Fraction Strips

Fractions are funny-looking numbers. Fraction strips turn them into a concept kids can understand.

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3D geometric solids figures

Geometric Solids

When kids are learning the names of the 3D solids (sphere, cylinder, cube, etc), these are a big help.

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hundreds chart

Hundreds Chart

A simple tool that packs a big punch.

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number line

Number Line

You'll need at least a 1-20 number line. The laminated ones are nice for write–on, wipe–off activities.

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sand timer

Playing Cards

A deck of cards is the perfect way to turn math practice into a super-fun game.

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sand timer


How many problems can you do in 3 minutes? Ready? Go!

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unifix cubes

Unifix Cubes

Linking cubes can be used to teach almost any basic math skill.

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white board for kids

White Board

A small write–on, wipe–off board is a must. Magnetic is even better.

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With these essential math tools, your kids will be well on their way to hands-on learning, and math will make a lot more sense for them.

Not sure exactly how to use math manipulatives? Hands On Math will show you how to use hands-on activities to teach and explain math, while Miss Brain's Cool Math Games mixes practice and play using dice, cards, and other math manipulatives.


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“Education is not preparation for life. Education is life itself. ”
~John Dewey