5 Hands-On Math Helps

For some children, math comes easily. For others, it is a bit more of a struggle. Why? Why do some children just “get it” when their teacher explains a new concept and others don’t? The trouble may lie in that word: concept. Children who are able to conceptualize new ideas quickly will naturally do better than those that don’t.

In preschool through elementary age, an easy way to bridge this conceptualizing gap is through the use of manipulatives—something concrete or tactile to hang ideas on before moving on to the pictoral representations or abstract concepts in the math book and worksheets. These 5 hands-on helpers can help your child bridge that gap.

1. Abacus

A simple, 100-bead abacus, like this one from Melissa & Doug, is the perfect place to start for hands on math help. Use it for counting. Use it for addition. Use it for subtraction. Even multiplication and division are possible on this simple tool!

Let your children use an abacus as long as they desire. Eventually, they won’t need it anymore and will stop using it, but don’t take it away prematurely.

2. Analog Clock

With the advent of digital clocks, the value of learning to tell time on an analog clock is often de-valued. However, learning to tell time is only part of clock-teaching with small children. A nice, geared clock like the large, classic Judy Clock (or this smaller version) not only teaches telling time, but also more easily teaches the passage of time.

Did you know that when we count, we use base 10 numbers, but telling time involves using base 12 and base 60? This means that going from counting to telling time is not always an intuitive cross-over. Using a geared clock makes understanding these differences easier to see—literally.

3. Shaped Blocks

Pattern Blocks

Pattern blocks are a fun way for your child to play with shapes. With each side of the various shapes the same length, it’s a fun way to see how the different shapes and angles interact with each other. You can get a classic wooden set or plastic set (both 250 pieces). Or, the Melissa & Doug Pattern Blocks and Boards come with over 100 wooden pattern blocks, plus a wooden storage container and pattern boards on which to build already designed patterns.


A relative of the pattern blocks above are tangrams. These sets feature some similar shapes as the pattern blocks, but the size and angles of the shapes have been carefully curated such that each set of 7 blocks when put together properly will yield a large square. Try this Tangrams 28 Piece Set (4 complete tangrams). If you want your collection of tangram pieces to rival that of your pattern blocks, this Learning Resources Classpack Tangrams has 30 sets (210 total pieces).


Another fun relative of the pattern blocks are pentominos: 5 scored squares connected together in various arrangements.

4. Balance Scale

Small children often confuse volume with weight. (If it’s bigger, it must weigh more, right?) This balance set will help them visualize the difference in weight between objects, rather than just taking yours or the teacher’s word for it.

5. Math Cubes

Math cubes are one of the most versatile math manipulatives you can get. The Learning Resources Mathlink Cubes has 100 3/4-inch math cubes—10 cubes in 10 different colors. Because they come with multiple colors and snap together, it is even easier for children to concretely add 5 blue blocks plus 7 red blocks to make 12 blocks total. Like the abacus, math cubes are perfect for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Even fractions become a piece of cake when different colors are linked together.

Also available are Gram Cubes that measure 1 centimeter on each side and weigh 1 gram each—perfect to use on the balance scale, too. For more help with fractions and decimals, check out this Fraction Tower Activity, a variation on math cubes.

Whether for homework, homeschooling or afterschooling, these math manipulatives will help your children turn an abstract concept like math into something more tangible. Let them use these hands-on helps as long as they want. Once the concepts are internalized, your child will be able to do the work more quickly in their heads and will leave the props behind.

Need more help with improving math skills? Check out 8 Ways to Sneak Learning Into Your Child’s Summer.

Photo Credit: Stefani

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Trackback from your site.


Stefani was raised in California; with her husband hailing from South Carolina, they've settled in the middle and are now raising three Texans. She loves classical homeschooling, great books, period dramas, modifying recipes, simple living, deep thinking, and cuddling up with her family to watch silly YouTube videos.

Leave a comment