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! 

Weekly Wisdom

Weekly Wisdom

Weekly Wisdom

Weekly Wisdom


Do you agree that children grow into the intellectual life around them? What sort of intellectual life do you expose your students to within your classroom?  Within your school? What intellectual life are they exposed to outside of the walls of your school?

Flexible Seating Without Spending a Cent!

Flexible Seating Without Spending a Cent!


*While cleaning out my blog’s draft folder I found this gem from last year. Flexible seating doesn’t have to be fancy and it doesn’t have to be expensive!

Get Real!

Imagine that you are on your way to a professional development session. You walk in, see your teacher bestie and go to sit down. As soon as you reach her table she shakes her head and says, “we have to sit in assigned seats.” As you turn to find out where to sit you have a sinking feeling and want to be there even less than before. You find the table only to see that it has the hard metal folding chairs and not the ones with the slight cushion, forget it! The simple act of choosing where to sit and what to sit on is important to us as adults. It is also important to our students yet we rarely give them this choice.
Creating a space in which students have options in their seating can be tricky. A lot of schools don’t have extra money to buy new chairs and tables. Many teachers don’t have a lot of choices when it comes to the furniture in their classroom. Teachers also don’t want to spend even more money out of pocket on seating. Here are a few options when you don’t have any options.

Consider Your Options

1. Take the names off of the desks. You have desks (or tables) and you have chairs. One way to create flexible seating is to remove the names from desks and chairs. Find somewhere in the room for student “stuff” to go. I gave each student a drawer in the cubbies we already had. We put our math journals in one bin and our reading in another. Students were then allowed to choose the desk they sat in. It wasn’t much but it was a choice. I arranged the desks so that some were alone, some were in partners and some were in groups. Students loved being able to choose where to go.
2. Consider the furniture you do have. This year I looked around my classroom and sort of inventoried the furniture. I had my desk, two comfy chairs, four tables, 25 chairs and two carpets. I saw immediately that I could take the legs off of one of the tables, lower it to the floor and put a carpet underneath it. I could also keep one of my scooped tables and attempt to trade the others.
3. Listen in. I was in a friend’s classroom and she was getting rid of her teacher desk. I heard and asked if I could put it in my room. Listen to the teachers around you! Sometimes teachers rearrange. Sometimes they get rid of things that you have had your eyes on. Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for things if you notice fellow teachers getting rid of them. Don’t be afraid to offer a swap if you see something you want. My second year teaching I swapped a round table for a rectangle table. It made a world of difference in my classroom.
4. Snoop around! I noticed that we had a ton of desks in our elementary commons area. I asked if I could swap some of my tables for some desks. My principal approved it, six desks came into my classroom and two tables went out. Desks give you many options. I decided to keep three at a normal height and raised three up to become standing desks. 
Within a few weeks, I had transformed my space into something new. I didn’t spend a single penny. The best part is that my kids love the new space! Other teachers are taking notice too! You can use the things that are available to you to create flexible seating. It might not be the beautiful dream you wished up while on Pinterest late at night but it will be functional.

Another option

Donors Choose- Now that I am no longer a teacher in the US, I can’t use Donor’s Choose. If you are a teacher in the United States, Donor’s Choose is a wonderful option for you. Two years ago I wrote a Donors Choose grant for Hokki Stools. These are wonderful! My students loved those stools. When they wiggled while they worked, they worked longer and harder. I highly recommend writing a donor’s choose grant for something. Hokki Stools, or wiggle seats or exercise balls are all excellent choices.

Top 3 Tips for Setting Up Your Classroom for Functionality and Fun!

Top 3 Tips for Setting Up Your Classroom for Functionality and Fun!


Can we just all take a moment and appreciate the beauty and SPACE that I had in my first classroom! This picture wasn’t even taken from the far corner of the classroom! I just pulled this up and immediately felt jealous of my former self for having taught in such a spacious classroom and not appreciating what I had!! Ugh! Appreciate your spaces teachers!

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A blurry photo of the first time I walked into my very first classroom!

Ok enough feeling sorry for myself! Let’s talk about classroom set up! I remember being PUMPED UP walking into my first classroom. How was I going to set it up? What cute bulletin boards would I create? (Surprise! My district didn’t allow cute bulletin boards. The walls were left blank to fill with anchor charts/student work!) How would I arrange? All of these questions were running through my head. I immediately started moving  stuff around and became overwhelmed because I really had no idea what I was doing! So… through the years I have set up many classrooms and will be setting up a brand new classroom in Poland in the next few weeks! I want to share my life changing (for real) strategies and things I’ve come to learn.

Most people save the best for last but that’s not my style!

  1. The Best Advice I Ever Got! – When I was a first year teacher, moments after walking into that beautiful space my teacher mentor came across the hall to offer advice about classroom setup. It is advice that I still use as a teacher and I feel you will too. Don’t recreate the wheel. Thousands of people have set up classrooms before you. Peek in and be nosey. Walk around your school and peek into other teachers classrooms. Look at how they have things arranged. Feel out their spaces. Use what you like, keep looking for what you need. I will admit that I am like the ultimate stalker when I walk into schools. I check out EVERYTHING. Now that camera phones are cool now (am I aging myself? But did you see that blurry camera phone picture above?) you can even snap photos of what you like and head back to see what will work in your space. Hit up Pinterest. Check out what others have done! Also when talking to teachers at your school find out what is required of your classroom space. Many districts have a list of things classrooms must have (a gathering space, places for anchor charts, a classroom library etc.) Look into this before you get too far along. Rule1
  2. Your Classroom Has to Work For You and Your Students – Enjoy your walk around the school and your walk around pinterest but don’t forget some ideas will not work for you as a teacher and that is OK!! Let me repeat, THAT IS OK! My first year all of the other 2nd grade teachers had their carpet in the library area and so I put mine there. The problem was that we actually sat longer in front of the smartboard. I moved the carpet and we were all much happier. Figure out what will work best for you as a teacher. This is like your second home so you want to be comfortable in your space there. Make Sure Your Space Works For You
  3. This brings me to tip number three!! Nothing is permanent. Everything can be changed! (but not too often! It will drive the little ones insane and therefore drive you insane!) If you love something and later it doesn’t work out CHANGE IT!!Nothing is Permanent

Now A Little To Do List!

Classroom Setup Checklist

Click here for a PDF of the Classroom Setup Checklist

Happy Organizing! Let me know how it goes! Once I move to Poland I will let you in on my classroom setup this year!