Today I want to give you the low down on what math manipulatives you ACTUALLY need and will use. It is super easy to go to your local education store and be tempted, or maybe even give into the temptation, to buy all the fun looking manipulatives! But I don't want you to waste your money on things you won't actually use, like I did. Once I got into homeschooling I realized there were things I actually needed that I didn't buy and things I bought that I didn't actually need. Let's be real moms - on one income, we don't have money to waste!
With just six manipulatives I have been able to successfully teach my children math from grades kindergarten up to four. And I'd be willing to bet that in upper elementary I'll still be able to use some of the same ones ;)
I am going to list these in order of importance/used most frequently.
#1 Base Ten Block Set - This is by far my most used item. When laying the foundation in the early years, these base ten blocks come in handy over and over again. Your child needs to have a solid understanding of place value, addition, and subtraction. These blocks are a great visual and concrete material that you can teach with and your child can touch and move around in order to gain that solid understanding.
#2 Abacus - I discovered the abacus after two years of homeschooling and it has become my favourite math manipulative. My kids' favourite also! The abacus is an AMAZING visual tool for children to see the exchange of ones to tens, tens to hundreds, hundreds to thousands, and so on. It also has a tremendous impact on mental math. As children use the abacus, sliding the beads to see adding or subtracting, they will begin to see those beads in their head and no longer need the abacus. They will be able to do addition and subtraction mentally but without using boring and repetitive worksheets to memorize addition and subtraction facts. Equipping children with the ability to quickly and correctly add and subtract is an invaluable tool because it applies in all areas of math whether you are doing fractions, measurement, or word problems. They all involve adding and subtracting.
#3 Counters - These babies come in handy SO often! Whether you want the cute dinosaur or teddy bear counters or the plain old dot counters, I promise you will use these frequently, especially in those early elementary grades.
#4 Multiplication Wrap Up - This is the one tool that you probably haven't heard of. I wouldn't consider it a manipulative but I'm including it because it is awesome for memorizing multiplication facts without boring and tedious worksheets or flashcards. For the kinesthetic learner, this is a dream come true. The multiplication wrap up (pictured below) is a plastic key with a string that wraps around from the multiplicand to the product. The multiplier is the large number in the middle of the key. So in other words, you look at the number on the left, multiply it by the big number in the middle, and wrap the string from the left to the answer on the right. The best part? After your child wraps the entire key, just flip it over and the imprint on the back will instantly show your child if they got everything right or not. And you didn't have to mark a single thing!!
You'll notice in this picture that there is a CD and workbook as well. You can purchase the wrap up on its own and it will definitely be effective in memorizing multiplication facts. The workbook and CD will speed up the effectiveness of memorization. So depending on your budget and how fast you want those multiplication tables memorized, you can decide if you need the whole program or just the wrap up.
#5 Geometric Solids - I have to admit these don't serve multiple purposes like some of the other manipulatives do BUT when it comes time to teach 3-D shapes you'll be glad you have them! Teaching vertices, edges, and sides using just pictures is really tough for kids to understand. But when kids can touch all those parts and rotate shapes around until they are able to do it in their heads, it makes a world of difference.
#6 Judy Clock - Telling time on the analog clock can be really confusing for children. The Judy clock is perfect for allowing children to clearly see the hours and minutes. Rotating the minute hand automatically advances the hour hand so your child can see the hour slowly changing. My kids could both sit for long stretches while I placed the hands in various positions and had them tell me the time. They also loved to move the hands around and ask me the time.
So many math manipulatives you can actually make. Even the geometric solids you could make instead of buy. But I have found it helpful to have these items on hand ready to go at a moments notice. So whether you are going to make some items or buy them, just make sure you do it ahead of time!
Of course using things you have around the house is always a fabulous way to save money and make math fun. One of our favourites is using food whenever it's time to practice fractions or dividing. What child wouldn't want to divide m&m's and then eat them when math is over??
When money is tight we can't buy everything. But I can assure you that each of these math manipulatives are worthy of their cost. They will be used frequently and they will enhance your child's understanding of various math concepts. Not to mention your job will be easier because you'll have the necessary tools on hand to effectively teach your child.