Children, young children in particular, need concrete, hands-on experiences to help them understand mathematical concepts by moving from the concrete to the representational to the abstract. This means using manipulatives both at school and at home. A child who plays with blocks or Legos®, for example, is developing spatial-mathematical intelligence. Pattern blocks introduce the child to geometric shapes and patterns. Interlocking cubes help a young child learn to count and an older child to better understand fractions. For very young children, filling different size containers with water helps them understand ‘less’ and ‘more,’ ‘bigger’ and ‘smaller.’
There are so many things that can be used as manipulatives. Beans, toothpicks, small candies, and buttons, for example, can help younger children to understand the concept of “number” and provide experience with counting, comparing, sorting and classifying. Coins can be used to teach about money, counting, adding and subtracting. Measuring cups are useful for a child learning fractions. And, of course, an added benefit of manipulatives is that they engage children by making it fun and we want our children and our students to be engaged in the mathematics they do, at home and at school.
I suggest reading Scholastic Magazine’s post on manipulatives, explore this interactive site for virtual manipulatives for all grade levels and visit Math Playground for more math fun.
Mathematician in Residence, Explorations in Math