5 Tips For Using Manipulatives to Make Learning Math Fun

When we are both learning and having fun, we often look forward to hard work and long hours; without fun, these become drudgery.”

                                                                        -William Glasserfun blog photo

When learning is fun students engage with the material on a deeper level. When the task does not feel like the drudgery some students may experience when pacing through a worksheet that offers little joy or incentive, students are willing and able to open themselves up to new ways of thinking and problem solving. When learning exercises are fun, students are given a fair opportunity to meet their potential. 

One of our favorite math workshops involves a big bin of colorful balls. We have a number of exercises we work through:

1. If you were going to fit inside of one of those balls, what is the tallest height you can be?

2. Guess the number of balls. Now identify and work through steps you can take to come up with a close estimation.

3. If the balls were stacked in a perfectly straight line, how many are needed to match your height?

Time and again, these workshops lead to enlightening math experiences for our students. They think about numbers, measurements, scale, etc. in new ways. They’ve even taught us some nifty tricks along the way. In fact we learn from our students every time we host a workshop; the trick is providing the fun, an easy task with math and manipulatives.

5 tips for using manipulatives to make math fun

1. Make it colorful

We all like bright and shiny things. Believe it or not, the success of the exercise hinges on the aesthetic appeal of the manipulative. Kids (and let’s be honest, adults) will apply more thought and care when working with attractive items (however, durability is important for all practical purposes, and surely you have learned this more than once). Ditch the black and white photocopies and bring in the color pages, blocks, cutouts, and markers.

2. The more the merrier

When it comes to working with manipulatives, more objects creates potential for more thinking. This doesn’t mean give students every tool they need. No, leave the practical objects out, but give them a MacGyver worthy challenge with string, scissors, clothespins, marker caps etc. Who knows, you might learn a new use for marker lids from some savvy student, and who doesn’t end the year with a handful of dried out markers, all with perfectly working caps?!

3. Put the students in the problem

We ask our students to measure their height if they were small enough to fit in a ball. In doing so, students get to solve a problem that they are a part of (and I think the narcissist in us all can see why this is effective). So often, students are asked to solve problems for James, Margo, and Tilda. Why should they care about solving those problems when they have their own problems to think about?

4. Let them speak!

Ditch the pen and paper in order to let students engage in salon style problem solving discussion, in small groups and as a class. They have things to gain from each other, socially and educationally, and the worksheet hinders their learning potential.

5. Offer incentive

This doesn’t have to be any great incentive. Maybe its five minutes extra of a game or recess, maybe its free time to color. It really doesn’t matter what it is; if kids can work to earn it, they will. I had a great teacher that started his own class currency, and we could earn it and use the dollars to buy candy or small toys. I didn’t want to learn–I wanted the candy, so I wanted the currency…so I learned.

Let us know strategies you use to make learning fun!