Simple guide to creating a FREE math manipulative kit with items you already have around the house. Plus, essential printables to complete your kit!
Homeschooling sometimes feels very complicated. Not only do we have to choose curriculum for every subject, but we also have to make further decisions about which curriculum components we’ll buy.
Enrichment coloring pages?
Plus, for math we also have to figure out which math manipulatives to buy.
Here’s the good news: teaching math does not need to be complicated. People have learned math for hundreds of years without a geoboard, plastic counting bears, or base-ten blocks. Yes, you need to choose a curriculum. But when it comes to manipulatives, one shoe box of simple everyday items will serve you well through the elementary years.
It’s fine to add more if you want. But if the budget is tight, or space is limited, this inexpensive math manipulative kit will accomplish just what you need.
Psst…Make sure to click the link at the bottom to download a printable version of this checklist, along with a few essential printable paper manipulatives.
How to Create Your Own Math Manipulative Kit
About 30 small items to use as counters, such as colored tiles, Legos, snap cubes, dried beans, or wooden blocks. It’s best if these items have identical shapes and come in a couple different colors.
You’ll need counters to teach your younger children to count, identify and compare numbers, and master basic addition and subtraction.
Coins and Play Money
About 25 pennies, 20 dimes, 20 nickels, and 10 quarters. It’s fine to use plastic coins if you have them, but kids love to use real ones–and then you don’t have to buy more stuff!
Coins are obviously essential for teaching children to count money. But you can also:
- Use pennies as counters
- Use nickels, dimes, or quarters to practice counting by 5s, 10s, or 25s.
- Use pennies and dimes to teach place value.
- Use pennies and dimes to teach adding and subtracting 2-digit numbers, with or without regrouping.
- Use pennies and dimes to stand for tenths and hundredths to teach decimals.
Play money (especially 1s, 10s, and 100s) from board games like Monopoly is also great for teaching place value.
Straws and Rubber Bands
About 20 rubber bands, and at box of at least 100 straws. For first and second graders, you’ll probably want 200 straws so that you have at least one bundle of 100.
Straws are the perfect manipulative for learning place-value. They’re easy-to-handle, light, and cheap. Use the rubber bands to bundle them into groups of 10, and then bundle ten 10s into a group of 100. Once you’ve made some bundles of 10, use them to teach two-digit addition and subtraction, with and without regrouping.
Straws are also a great tool for teaching geometry. Kids learn a lot from actually constructing geometric shapes rather than just looking at them in a book. For example, when studying quadrilaterals, challenge your child to cut straws into different sizes and construct rectangles, squares, and parallelograms.
Egg carton, with two cups cut off to make a 2×5 grid.
Addition and Subtraction: Use the 2×5 egg carton as a variation on the ten-frame for younger children who are learning the sums and differences up to 10.
- Model addition with different-colored counters. “What’s 6 + 3?”
- Model subtraction by filling the cups with the minuend (the starting number). “There are 7 counters. How many will there be if I take away 2?”
You can also add a second egg carton to model the numbers in the teens, or to practice sums and differences greater than 10.
Multiplication and Division: Use the 2×5 egg carton to organize groups of counters as you introduce your kids to the concept of equal groups in multiplication and division.
- Model multiplication by putting equal quantities of counters in each egg cup. “If I have 6 groups of 3, how many counters do I have?”
- Model division in two ways. “I have 24 counters. If I divide them up among six cups, how many will be in each cup?” Or, “I have 24 counters. If I put six in each cup, how many cups will I fill?”
Deck of cards and 2 dice
Playing cards and 2 dice. (Raid your game cupboard.)
It’s always handy to have a deck of cards and some dice handy when math is feeling like drudgery and everyone (including mom!) needs a change of pace. Check out my free addition games for ideas. And for the motherlode of math games you can play with a deck of cards, check out Denise Gaskin’s The Game Worth 1000 Worksheets.
Clock with hands that move. Use one you have around the house, or buy an inexpensive geared clock.
If you’re teaching a younger child to read time, you need some sort of clock with hands that you can move.
Pack of 100 index cards.
I love index cards! They’re very cheap and very useful. Once you have some handy, you’ll find many ways to use them. Here are some of the ways I like to use index cards:
- Flash cards: Ever discover that your child needs review with a particular topic…but then you forget to actually review it? I sure do! If you keep a deck of “review flash cards” and go through them each day, you won’t forget to review that topic your child keeps forgetting. Math facts and vocabulary are especially well-suited to this.
- Number cards: Write each number from 0 to 10 on index cards. Use them with younger children to practice identifying numbers, comparing numbers, putting numbers in sequence, or finding pairs that can be added together to make a target number.
- Geometry: Cut an index card apart to construct shapes. “If you cut this card into two triangles, what can you make from them?” Or, explore symmetry by folding the card before cutting.
Ruler and measuring tools
Rulers provide a simple model of the number line (especially if you have a meter stick that goes up to 100cm). A ruler is all you need in your everyday math supplies, but it’s also very helpful to have access to a tape measure, yardstick, kitchen scale, and measuring cups so that it’s easy to practice real-life measuring with your kids.
Paper manipulatives and charts: Ten-frame, 100s chart, grid paper, and fraction strips
Many of the best math tools are simple pieces of paper.
- Ten-frame: Essential for teaching the addition and subtraction facts.
- Hundreds chart: Great for teaching skip-counting and place-value.
- Centimeter grid paper: Draw arrays to model single- and multi-digit multiplication. Or, use 10×10 grids to represent decimals and percentages (and to cement the connection between them).
- Fraction strips: My favorite manipulative for teaching fractions. They’re much easier to draw and visualize than circles.
Homeschooling can feel very complicated–but your math manipulatives don’t have to be!