Changing Our Thinking: Access to Math Manipulatives

Changing Our Thinking: Access to Math Manipulatives

There are many practices from long ago that we need to rethink as teachers. This series looks to bring up those practices and offer alternate ideas that are more relevant in today’s classroom. Today we’re discussing where and how we store our math manipulatives. 

WHat We've Always Done

When I was in elementary school math manipulatives magically appeared when we needed them. Oh, today we’re measuring things? Well, look at that! The rulers have made their way to the front table. Oh, we need a calculator for today? Look what has appeared out of nowhere! Teachers controlled the manipulatives. They pulled manipulatives out of the cabinet and then put it back. I assume this is because of storage space. Let’s face it. We don’t all have a lot of room in our classroom. The idea that I have to have room for an entire classroom library plus my math manipulatives is a lot of space. We don’t always have a lot of space… or the organizational storage we need. 

What's the Problem?

If students don’t have access to math manipulatives then they don’t have any choice. Natasha! Do kids really need choice about math manipulatives? YES! The answer is alway yes! In a teacher centered classroom it makes sense that the teacher is the only one who can access the math tools. She gives the kids the rulers when they need a ruler. They get to use base ten blocks when it is time to learn about place value. The tools are controlled by the teacher and are handed out when the teacher deems them necessary to use. Students don’t get to explore them and they don’t have very many options. Each tool has just one use that is predetermined by the teacher. We limit student’s use of manipulatives and we limit their creativity with them. 

What to do Instead

First and foremost in most elementary classrooms there is a space for a classroom library. There should also be a space for math manipulatives. Take a minute or two to look around and analyze how you’re using your space. What do you have that could make your math manipulatives more accessible to students? Maybe you don’t have ideal storage right now, that’s ok! Even making them the slightest more available to students is a start. Once you establish a space and a storage system for math manipulatives teach your students about your space. Tell them they can use any math tool during math time. Teach them how to use all of the different tools you have available. Let them explore and give them choice. 

Instruction today should focus on independence. What skills can children complete independent from an adult? This is how you truly know what your students know. If you are constantly giving students math manipulatives you take away their choice and their independence. Once students are familiar with all of the manipulatives available to them they are able to choose which tool will work best for them. Some of my kids use rekenreks while some use 10-frames. I ensure that my students know how to use all tools but they have the freedom to choose which ones they use. 

Here is the cool thing about giving kids the power to choose math manipulatives themselves, kids use tools in unconventional ways that you might not have considered. Last year during recess one of my diamonds made up her own math game with a 100 bead string and two dice. She would roll the dice, add them up and then move the beads along the string. If you played with a partner the first person to 100 won! Later in the year a different student used a 10-frame as a measuring tool. They measured how many 10-frames long our carpet was. If I had told them we were only measuring (grade 1 uses non-standard measurement) using measurement tools this student would have missed out. It is always cool to see how students use their tools. 

Share Your Thoughts

Do you allow students access to the math manipulatives in your classroom?

How do you have your tools organized? 

Any other comments or suggestions? Let me know down in the comments below! 

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