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25 Easy & Affordable Tools for Early Math

When it comes to math activities and centers, the best tools for teaching can be found in and around the house.

By Lani Aquino

Making learning hands-on is huge for ensuring students internalize key concepts. The early foundational skills of mathematics are no exception. As students explore numbers and basic operations, it can be helpful to have a variety of resources to aid them on the journey. Heading to a store or website featuring mathematic manipulatives and counters can do the trick, but it can also deplete an already stretched budget and/or add to the growing amount of personal funds that teachers dip into each year.

Heading to the backyard, pantry, toy bin, or craft closet can be a much more affordable trip. It can also be an opportunity to reach out to parents and ask them to search for some resources in the same places. Students will enjoy the variety of objects and manipulatives that can be used to illustrate one-to-one correspondence, counting, sorting, fractions, basic operations, and more. With more and more teachers utilizing math centers in the classroom, having the resources to stock these learning stations doesn’t have to become a cost-prohibitive issue. Here are 25 manipulatives that can be acquired from a quick and easy roundup at home or via a plea to parents.

Head Outdoors- Some of these may be seasonal and/or perishable, but it’s fun to add some timely pieces to the manipulative collection. Gathering could even occur on a trip to the beach over the summer. With many of these, a size specification would be necessary if asking students to do collecting at home.

  • Rocks & Pebbles
  • Leaves
  • Twigs (great for measuring too)
  • Acorns
  • Pinecones
  • Shells

Hit the Pantry- Kids will love the fact that the tools for learning can become a tasty snack treat after use. Knockoff and bargain brands are great because items aren’t packaged when they hit the station, so the students won’t necessarily know if it’s Cheerios or a lesser expensive store brand. Parents could be asked to send in a box or bag of any of these designated items each quarter. Having them placed into X amount of baggies for each student would be even better! (Obviously, any food allergies need to be taken into consideration.)

  • Raisins
  • Goldfish
  • Cheerios/Fruit Loops
  • Popcorn
  • Marshmallow Minis
  • Jelly Beans
  • Teddy Grahams

Raid the Toy Bin- Teachers who are also parents know the struggle of kids amassing too many toys and the need for the occasional purge. Raiding the toy bin for tiny objects makes for a great way to stock the manipulative pile. I’m sure there are more than a few moms and dads who would be happy to do the same for the sake of learning!

  • Legos- perfect for fractions
  • Miniature Animals/Figurines
  • Marbles
  • Checkers
  • Play Money
  • Poker Chips (maybe not in the toy bin, but…)

Scour the Crafting Supplies- Items for crafting make great choices for math stations. They can be reused often, or they can be used to create mathematical projects for display. Not all crafting supplies have to start out with that purpose in mind. Teachers can also create a list of items for parents to gather and/or send in as they come available. This will create a larger supply over time.

  • Beads (of a larger size)
  • Pompoms
  • Craft Sticks
  • Buttons (Those little packages on a new shirt that often get tossed with the tags.)
  • Cotton Balls
  • Lids (Give some guidance on these for size/style, but they make for great sorting and counting items. Perfect fits would be pop bottles, milk jugs, baby food jars, non-flip dressings & sauces, etc. Specify no metal caps from alcohol.)

A scavenger hunt around the house or a quick trip to the Dollar Store can do wonders for supplying engaging resources. Promoting hands-on learning through the usage of manipulatives is a great way to introduce and reinforce key math skills. Rather than purchasing expensive products touted as math manipulatives, cleaning out an oversized nut jar and filling it with any of these 25 affordable items can do wonders for a tight budget!

If you enjoyed the thoughts and ideas shared here, check out the trainings and tools (for teachers and for families) that we offer.

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