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Speaking of Math Manipulatives

by Early Math Counts

Is it enough to have wonderful math manipulatives, organized and available for children to play with, or do we need to be more systematic and intentional with the materials we present as well as in the way we present them?

I’ve been writing about math manipulatives on Mondays for 2 years, but I thought it was time to step back and remind everyone, myself included, that there is a space between “free-play” and “teacher-directed” activity that is at the heart of purposeful math education for young children.

No, it is not enough to put beautiful sets of hand carved wooden Tangrams out in  baskets so children can explore them.  Yes, they should initially investigate the Tangrams on their own and discover their attributes as is developmentally appropriate.  However, intentional math teaching should follow-up the children’s independent play and discovery.  I know that you think very carefully about the materials you present to the children as well as the timing of when you present them.  You consider the children’s ages and stages, as well as their previous experiences when planning.  You think about the Zone of Proximal Development and set up the opportunities accordingly.

The next step is to think about how to use these amazing manipulatives to expose and teach early math concepts.  For example, Unifix Cubes are often placed in baskets on tables during free play.  Children choose them, or they don’t ,and when they do, I often see sustained engagement.  However, what I don’t often see, is purposeful activity using the Unifix Cubes as a tool to teach math.  That is what they are designed for.  This requires planning on the part of the teachers that asks them to consider how to develop an activity (or activities) using the manipulative, less as an open-ended toy, and more as a tool for teaching math.

The next time you set out your baskets of Unifix Cubes, plan an activity using them.  Create pattern cards so the children can copy the patterns using the cubes.  Create a measuring activity so the children can measure different lengths.  Have the children sort the cubes into color-coded baskets.  Ask the children to make their Unifix Cube tower taller, or shorter.  Take their open-ended play to the next step.

Intentional use of math manipulatives is the goal for their use.  Keep thinking about ways to use manipulatives in your “purposeful” teaching.


One Reply to “Speaking of Math Manipulatives”

  1. What a great reminder to us all! “Purposeful” teaching is one that first requires planning on the part of the teacher . . . after all, expensive sets of manipulatives are not just for play, but for learning as well.

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