Free and Inexpensive Math Manipulatives You May Already Have at Home



If you poll any group of homeschool moms about which subject they dislike teaching the most, I would guess that math would come in high on the list. So many of my friends, many of whom found math confusing themselves, dread teaching it. I have always loved teaching math, both as a public school Kindergarten teacher and now as a homeschooler. One of the ways that I keep math fun for all of us is to use a variety of fun manipulatives when teaching math lessons.

Math Manipulatives for Learning

Even if you have never heard of “manipulatives,” I’m certain you have used at least one — your fingers! A manipulative is anything that a learner can use to help them learn a math concept by manipulating it. There are tons of fun, colorful manipulatives that you can purchase at school supply stores or online, but they can be expensive. Instead, why not try some of the following math manipulative ideas, many of which you probably already have in your home:

For Creating Patterns or Sorting

  • colored cereal
  • candy
  • colored pasta (instructions below)
  • buttons
  • leaves
  • Legos
  • sponges cut into small pieces
  • flat marbles (found at craft stores with the artificial plants)
  • sequins
  • beads
  • seeds
  • stickers

For Counting and Operations (Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication, Division)

  • Cheerios
  • pennies
  • cotton balls
  • beans
  • rocks
  • small toys
  • bottle caps
  • craft sticks
  • straws
  • pieces from old board games
  • small squares cut from construction paper
  • popcorn
  • golf tees

For Probability and Fractions

  • lima beans spray-painted on one side
  • playing cards
  • colored mini marshmallows
  • Hershey’s chocolate bar
  • coins

For Geometry

  • toothpicks and mini marshmallows
  • pony beads and pipe cleaners
  • homemade geoboard (instructions below)
  • Legos
  • Blocks
  • homemade play dough
  • square crackers

Making Colored Pasta

To make colored pasta you will need uncooked pasta, rubbing alcohol, and food coloring. You can use either the simple, dropper food coloring found in the baking aisle or the gel food coloring that is sold in the cake decorating section. Put your pasta in a bowl or baggie. I like to use a variety of pasta shapes. Mix about ⅛ to ¼ cup of rubbing alcohol with food coloring. I like my pasta bright and colorful, so I make sure to use enough food coloring to make a pretty, dark liquid. Pour the food coloring mixture over the pasta and stir or (carefully) shake the bag. After all of the pasta is colored, dump it out to dry on a cookie tray or cake pan covered with paper towels. Note: the rubbing alcohol makes the pasta inedible, so make sure your children know not to sample!

Making a Homemade Geoboard

Purchased geoboards are made of either a wooden or plastic base with a grid of nails or pegs on top. You can easily make your own. For a more durable version, cut a board into an 8” x 8” square. Cut a piece of paper in the same dimensions, then create a pattern by making a dot at 1”, 2 ½”, 4”, 5 ½”, and 7” both horizontally and vertically to make a grid. Tape the paper to the board, then hammer a nail into each dot. Rip off the paper, and you have your own homemade, long-lasting geoboard for a fraction of the cost of purchasing one. If you want an even simpler, but not as durable, version, use corkboard and push pins.

What fun manipulatives do you use to make math more meaningful? Share your ideas with us!

Originally published at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s