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How to Use Math Manipulatives to Engage Student Learning

by Neil Finney

How to Use Math Manipulatives to Engage Student Learning

Using manipulatives to support your math instruction is an effective way to add another dimension to mathematical exploration and problem solving. These hands-on tools allow students to visualize the concepts and seek out solutions to problems that require more than simply pencil and paper. Math manipulatives provide a platform for students to ‘see’ the possible answers and pursue them using their multiple intelligence strengths.

Math manipulatives can involve the use of many different objects and items. Some of the most commonly used include; tangrams, pattern blocks, colour tiles, fraction wheels and base ten blocks (just to name a few).


Here are some strategies and tips for using math manipulatives in your program:

1.       It’s play time! Before you start the lesson, give the students 5 minutes to play with the manipulatives and build whatever they want during this time. Once they have had a chance to use them as they want to, there is more of a chance that they will be successful at following the lesson activity and not distracting themselves by the need to make castles, robots or other things.

 Tip From a Mentor – Once “play time” has finished, have students group and organize the materials in the way needed to use for the lesson. When students have become more comfortable and focused with using manipulatives, pre-count and arrange them, so they are ready to be distributed to the students. This will prevent wasting time from your lesson.

2.       Build confidence. Using math manipulatives can give students a stage for their inter-personal skills and learning styles, and therefore, help to provide the confidence they will need to follow-through with their plan, and even to share their findings with their peers.

3.       Assign an “open-ended” problem. By giving students open-ended questions and challenges, you provide them with the perfect environment to explore multiple ways of solving a problem. Math manipulatives can allow them to visual these varying approaches and support their ability to understand the key concepts behind their possible solutions.

4.       Sharing the Learning. If manipulatives have been used to construct or display a strategy used to solve the assigned problem, put them on display. Give students an opportunity to walk around and look out the different methods used to solve the same “open-ended” problem – this will help to consolidate their learning and self-reflect on the strategies they used.

 Tip From a Mentor – Check out the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives to add an online technology element to your use of math manipulatives.

Math manipulatives can be anything from a ruler to a tennis ball cut in-half. If it can be “manipulated” and used to help visualize a concept, it can serve a valuable purpose during any part of your math instruction time. Whether used to introduce an idea, or for students to build with in order to understand a key concept, math manipulatives can develop visual-spatial thinking skills that will open the doors to math learning success for your students.


What are some of the most effective math manipulatives that you have used during your lessons? Think of a time when you watched a student excel at a math problem, because they were given manipulatives to support their learning. Share it with us. What happened?



During Neilʼs 10 years of teaching experience, he has taught in London, England; Ontario; public and private schools; elementary and secondary; junior; intermediate; core french; developmental skills; and junior gifted (grades 4,5,6). He is a Reading Specialist that has been incorporating technology in his practice consistently throughout his career. Neil has recently published his first book entitled “Ignite. Incite. Inspire.” – Examining 21st Century Issues in Education, which is a collection of teaching articles and posts written from January to December 2011.


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