Exploration with Hands-On Math Tools (Manipulatives, Blocks, Tiles) Part 1

In your school you probably have access to math manipulatives – blocks, fraction tiles, clocks, Cuisenaire rods, pattern blocks, compasses, rulers, base ten blocks, even building blocks like Legos. You might not have all of these hands-on tools in your classroom, but you can probably find lots of them in other classrooms or stored away on shelves and in closets – don’t be afraid to borrow!

Math exploration for elementary teachers.

Math manipulatives are our best friends!


There are tons of structured activities out there that help students gain concrete, conceptual understanding through using manipulatives. You can find a bunch here.


But right now I want to talk about the benefits of unstructured exploration and play with the blocks and other manipulatives in your school.


Some kids grow up playing with all kinds of toys and blocks from the moment they’re old enough to hold them.


Playing with blocks has so many benefits, and children make different kinds of connections through playing with blocks at each different stage of their development.


Through play with blocks, young children make important math connections that later help them with:




Visual/Spatial Understanding



Hand-Eye Coordination


Accuracy and Precision

Problem Solving


Think of playing with blocks as building mathematical background knowledge.

Developing the skills listed above sets kids up for mathematical success.


But not all students come to school with these background experiences. Giving your elementary students time for low-structure play with base ten blocks, Cuisenaire rods, Lego-style blocks, and pattern blocks helps them with elementary math!


Without even knowing it, during unstructured math exploration they’re learning:


Fraction concepts



Unit conversion

Problem Solving


Geometry concepts

Proportional reasoning


Even if it’s just a few minutes of free play time before a structured lesson…

Students are excited and motivated by math tools. They love to feel the wooden blocks, stack the plastic ones, and ogle over the  designs and patterns they can create with the multi-color blocks.


Here’s a classroom management tip:


Before a structured math activity with manipulatives begins, provide free time for exploration.


It’s so hard for little dudes and dudettes (or even big dudes and dudettes!) to stop themselves from building towers of ones blocks or crafting beautiful designs with pattern blocks, so give kids a few minutes of creative free time before asking them to use the tools for specific activities.


Say, “OK I’m going to let you explore this math tool for 5 minutes before we start our math activity. That means that at X o’clock we’ll stop free time and begin the math activity.”


You’ll be amazed at how engaged students become when they are allowed to experiment with manipulatives. And because they’ve been given a little time to scratch their creative and curious itch, they’ll be better able to use the tools appropriately during a math activity.


Read Part 2 and Find a free Math Manipulatives Activity here!


improve math education at elementary schools




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