Budget Math Manipulatives

Posted by: 

Math Manipulatives are an extremely important part of learning math and should be incorporated in daily lessons as often as possible.  Manipulatives give the student the ability to connect mathematical concepts and symbols to physical objects, and in turn this helps cement learning.  What are manipulatives?  Any sort of concrete object such as counters, unifix cubes, place value blocks, an abacus, etc.  But you really don't need to break the bank to fill your learning center with math manipulatives.


You can save gobs of money by collecting and creating your own math manipulatives, and supplies can often be found in the recycling bin and thrift stores! 

I have scoured my home and the local thrift shops for budget math manipulatives.  This is not an extensive list; I bet you can find a dozen other items to use for math manipulatives if you open your craft cupboard and kitchen pantry! 

Here is what I found:

1. Dice.  I found most of these at thrift stores.  Back in my teaching days, I also scooped up some wooden cubes at the craft store and made my own dice.  I wrote the numbers 1-5 on the sides of the cube, and on the 6th side, I placed a small sticker.  That way, I could vary the meaning of that stickered side.  I could tell the kids one day that the sticker represented the number zero, while the next day, I could tell them that it represented the number six.  Other days the sticker represented a missed turn if using the dice to play a game. It gave me some freedom to vary our math instruction. Try this fun DIY math game to create with your students.  It's called Dice Toss and it allows all students to work on the math facts that they need help with! Thrift stores are a great resource for playing pieces, dice, scoring cards and even spinners!  Many of the games are incomplete and therefore have to be sold for a discounted price.  Also: Checkers pieces make great counters.

2.  Pom-poms.  I really like to use pom-poms for counters because they are a staple in a classroom and can double for a craft in a pinch!   Plus, kids love them.  They are colorful and soft and fun to touch.  They are great for primary grades and gluing them to paper during craft time helps kids develop their fine motor skills. 

3. Flat marbles.  Flat marbles are a wonderful resource to use for game pieces, to group in order to demonstrate multiplication problems, or as the place holder in fun 100's board activities such as, "What Number Am I?". They can be found at thrift stores, fish aquarium stores, and the craft section.

4.  Buttons.  Most people have a jar of buttons.  If you are me, you have many jars of buttons from my grandmothers who loved to sew.  They make fun, beautiful math manipulatives and picking up buttons will help strengthen kids' pincer grasp and build fine motor skills!  I like to use buttons to play the game, "Button Toss".  Find buttons at thrift stores or yard sales!

5.  Shells and Rocks.  Who doesn't love to peruse a beach for rocks, beach glass and shell treasures?  It's one of my favorite things to do!  And even better, they are a free, natural object that kids will love to handle!  It's super fun to write numbers of shells and rocks with a black sharpie and use them as a sort of dice, or to play the super fun game "Shell Lotto".

1.  Felt squares.  Felt can be found in the sheet at craft stores, or by the yard.  I prefer the heavier duty wool felt, but it is more expensive. It doesn't get as fuzzy and it's super fun to touch. What's more, they stick wonderfully to a board covered with felt, so make a great way to demonstrate mathematical operations in front of a large classroom!  Kids can come up and help by manipulating the felt squares to add, subtract, multiply, divide, create patterns, etc.  Just a small amount can yield massive amounts of squares!  Simply cut into 1x1 inch squares and you have yourself some fun counters!  I bet it would be fun to create a hundreds board and ten sticks with these felt squares and pieces of cardboard! 

2.  Macaroni.  Uncooked pasta noodles make easy and economical counters.  Pasta can be found in the bulk section at most grocery stores. You might be surprised at the variety and colors you can choose from. You can buy the pasta that can be strung on a string as beads.  Simply number the "beads" from 0-10 and have students place the beads on a string from least to greatest. 

3. Cardstock Squares and Straws.  Both items can be found readily in your home or at your local grocery store, and can be gathered in a pinch.  Cardstock squares can be used for creating patterns, as tactile bar graph material, or (if you use more than one color of cardstock) to practice probability by recording the color you chose from the bag at random.  If you write numbers on them, they can be used to play "Number Lotto"! Straws can be cut into pieces to be used as counters or to arrange into multiplication patterns, or even strung on string (use multi-colored straws if you want kids to make a pattern with the colors).

4.  Mini popsicle sticks.  These can be used as counters.  If you put a plus or minus, multiplication or division sign with a thin-tipped sharpie in small writing at the end of each stick, they can also be used to determine the mathematical operations kids should employ when completing math problems.  (Give students two numbers and they choose a popsicle stick and finish the problem by adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing.)  This makes for a super fun math center! Popsicle sticks can also be used to group kids into math groups.  Simply write the letters A, B, C, or D at the end of each stick and when kids draw a stick from the bag, they quickly know which group they are a part of.  Use popsicle sticks and black beans to make these awesome Bean Counting Sticks!  (Plus, don't miss out on the PDF story problems and activities free for you to use!)

5.  Lima beans. There is something about the size and shape of lima beans that make them perfect for counters!  I tinted them in bowls of vinegar/water and food coloring for 10-15 minutes.  Then, after they dried, I labeled each bean with a number from 0-10 on both sides.  Each student will receive a set of beans and we will be practicing ordering them from least to greatest, and from greatest to least.  I can also use them in this activity called, "Scrambled Egg".  Students learn how to list various 2-digit numbers, and will learn how to order them from least to greatest.  Fun! 

What budget math manipulatives would you like to add to this list?