5 Tips to Enhance Mathematics Instruction with Manipulatives

“The only way to learn mathematics is to do mathematics.”

– Paul Halmos

Greetings fellow bloggers! Whether you’re reading this as a student, teacher candidate, certified teacher, ECE, or principal, I hope this post provides you with some tips on how you can incorporate math manipulatives into your everyday teaching and/or learning.

Over the past several months, I have been in the process of becoming a certified teacher at Lakehead’s Faculty of Education. As you can imagine, my fellow teacher candidates and I are learning about the ‘latest and greatest’ teaching strategies. As you may or may not know, mathematics instruction is one of the hot topics in education right now. Provincial assessments indicate that only 57% of primary students and 69% of junior students are meeting the minimum provincial expectations for math (EQAO, 2018). As a result, there is a huge push on teachers to differentiate mathematics instruction so that all students have the ability to access the information that is being taught. One of the most popular ways to do this is to give students access to hands-on manipulatives when solving problems. Allowing students to use a variety of hands-on materials, such as manipulatives, gives students an entirely different learning opportunity. Students can visualize solutions to the problems, collaborate with classmates, and demonstrate their learning in a way that paper and pencil cannot. Most teachers have access to a variety of manipulatives in their classrooms, but many teachers are not aware of the ways that you can use these manipulatives to teach each of the strands in mathematics. For example, patterning blocks, while commonly used to teach students how to make patterns, can also be used to teach students about perimeter or fractions. If I just blew your mind or you are thinking to yourself “how in the world can I teach fractions with patterning blocks,” then I suggest you continue reading because I will be discussing some strategies that you can implement in your own teaching practice to help students ‘GET’ math. 

Here are some of my own tips and strategies that I keep in mind when teaching math!

Tip #1: Manipulatives are for ALL students.

The biggest mistake that teachers make when using manipulatives is that “their students are too old to play with pattern blocks” or “they already know how to use the hundred’s chart.” ALL students can benefit from using hands-on materials, especially when learning about math. Students all learn in different ways and we owe it to our students to give them multiple different learning opportunities. Besides… the manipulatives are probably just sitting on a shelf in your classroom collecting dust anyways. Bring them out and let students explore!

Even Lakehead Teacher Candidates enjoy using Math Manipulatives!

Tip #2: Model to your students the endless possibilities for using the manipulative. 


While some students may be familiar with using manipulatives, teachers shouldn’t just assume that their students know what to do when given pattern blocks or a hundred’s chart. As a teacher, you must ensure that you have modelled the correct way to use the manipulative, but you also need to let the students explore and come up with new ways to use the materials to enhance their learning. Don’t expect your students to all of a sudden understand how to count by 10’s because you gave them a hundred’s chart. Manipulatives are an awesome tool, but they aren’t magic. Don’t let them replace your teaching. 

Tip #3: Let students make their own math manipulatives! 

Some of the best experiences I had during my course on ‘Teaching Mathematics Instruction’ was when we got to make our own manipulatives. You might be thinking to yourself… why would I waste my valuable teaching time making fraction strips when we already have some in the classroom? I understand that time can be very limited, but having students make their own math manipulatives is time well spent. They will develop deep understandings of why/how the manipulative can help them understand math concepts and on top of that, they will USE them because THEY made them. They will bring them home to their families and share it with them- they will be talking ABOUT MATH… OUTSIDE OF MATH CLASS. And teacher of the year award goes to… you! 

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Tip #4: Give students time to ‘just play’ with the manipulatives. 

Again, you might be thinking to yourself: “we don’t have time to just play.” Take a few minutes during your math lessons to expose students to a variety of different math manipulatives. Let them explore the manipulative in small groups and then have them share with the class what they learned, how they used it, and what they might be able to do with it. Chances are… your students will come up with some really great ideas and they will learn more from this activity than that boring math worksheet you had planned- talk about inquiry based learning!

Tip #5: Use them every day!

In order for students to become comfortable with math manipulatives and for them to rely on them when solving problems, students need to be exposed to them regularly. If you only bring the manipulatives out on special occasions, students don’t feel like they have access to them or they ‘feel singled out’ because they need the manipulatives to learn and their classmates don’t. Make them available to students every day and encourage all of your students to justify/prove their solutions using the manipulatives. Not only does this ensure students are double checking their work, but it encourages them to slow down and understand the concepts they are learning about.

Hopefully these tips have inspired you to include manipulatives in your everyday math instruction. If you choose to follow these guidelines, I hope that it will benefit your students’ understanding of mathematical concepts and you will feel much more accomplished as an educator. If you have any other ideas/suggestions, please feel free to leave a comment in the space below!


Education and Quality Accountability Office. (2018). Provincial Elementary School Report, 2018: Achievement Results: Primary Division. Retrieved from http://www.eqao.com/en/assessments/results/assessment-docs-elementary/provincial-report-primary-achievement-results-2018.pdf 

Education and Quality Accountability Office. (2018). Provincial Elementary School Report, 2018: Achievement Results: Junior Division. Retrieved from http://www.eqao.com/en/assessments/results/assessment-docs-elementary/provincial-report-junior-achievement-results-2018.pdf 

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