The Best Learning Equipment May Be in Your Own Home


Manipulatives are those things that crowd our schoolrooms; they teach in a hands-on manner and they usually spill over the bins and buckets that try to contain them – but most of all they are fun. Manipulatives can be homemade or store bought, some things have more than one use, and some aren’t ‘things’ at all.


One of my bins that overflows is the dice bin. I have alphabet dice, symbol dice, number dice, dice within dice, fraction dice, money dice – you name it.

We use these in various manners. We might roll our 36-sided die and a symbol die and do calculations. We might roll money die and add up the amount, or roll the fraction dice and work on common denominators.

For older kid fun we add in a bunch of dice and roll and create equations like: 2x+1/2-20(.25) =? It’s good work with the alphabet die to see if you can make an equation that actually has a solution. Little ones can use regular dice to add and subtract from 1-6, roll a 2 and a 4 they add up to 6 and they subtract to 2.

The alphabet dice can be rolled again and again to get a string of letters, and then make a word. What's the die I want but don’t have yet? Math symbols like Pi, sqrt, E, etc. You can easily make a cardboard die with this template* and put whatever you want on the six sides (maybe I should do that for the higher symbol die.) 


Chalk is great stuff and it definitely serves as a hands-on manipulative.

Go outside and start chalking up the driveway. Draw a hopscotch board and write noun, verb, adjective, adverb in the spots. Now hopscotch and call out a word that matches the description you stepped on.

Draw a bunch of circles and create fraction charts; color 1/3, 2/3, 6/8 of the circle. Draw the phases of the moon, make a solar system diagram, make a star chart – there are so many things you can do with chalk!

Are you working on angles? Get a yardstick and draw some angles, be sure to get a protractor so you can check the angle measures. Once we had a giant compass that you slipped chalk into the end of and we made circles and rainbows galore.

Don’t overlook chalk as an art medium too; grab some black paper and create some art, or just create your masterpiece on the driveway for everyone to see.

Making Your Own Manipulatives

Look in your pantry for some homemade manipulatives to keep little hands busy. Working on hand-eye coordination in the younger years can help as your child gets older and starts writing.

Got beans and rice? Put the rice in a bowl and use a tablespoon to transfer the rice to another bowl. Beans can be poured from container to container, measured, picked up with tweezers and of course glued onto paper for art.

Use corn meal on a baking sheet to trace letters and numbers in the meal. Make your own play dough, (see below for recipes), and have your child roll out letters and make words. Work on one to one correspondence by connecting upper and lowercase dough letters with a bit of string.

Save empty containers that are square or rectangle shaped and use them to make word houses. Cover the container with white paper and draw a house on it, then add a list of words (-it, -all), use index cards to make strips of words to go in the house (bit, fit, lit, sit. etc)

Snack math is always popular too: fractions with chocolate, graphing how high you can stack Oreos before they fall, separating trail mix and using percentages to find out how much of each thing is in the mix – and much more.

Cooking in the kitchen with little ones is also a great opportunity to use kitchen tools as manipulatives; measure with cups, weigh with a scale, and check the temperature of the oven. 

 Progressive Story

Sometimes manipulatives can be as simple as a ball and your brain; just sit on the ground and do a progressive story.

The first person starts off a story and when they are done they toss the ball to the next person who continues the story. This is great for vocabulary building, word use and thinking on the fly.

Another game we like to play is the alphabet game. Stand or sit and start with the letter 'A' and think of a category (animals, countries, food). The first person might say,  ‘Aardvark’ and toss the ball to the next person who would say, ‘Bear’, ‘Caterpillar’, etc. My kids love to play this with countries, as long as Hannah gets ‘I’ so she can say, ‘Iraq’! (Where her Dad was for 14 mos.)

This game also works with numbers; the first person poses a math question (say 2X2) and tosses the ball to another person who says the answer. Beware of mixing ages in this game though, or your little one will get frustrated by hard math questions. However, being involved in the game gives them questions and answers they can learn from. 

So, don’t get all caught up in new toys that come out that promising to help your kids learn math or reading. Sometimes the best equipment you have is already in your own home.

You can spend countless hours cutting and laminating manipulatives for your kids or buy them at the store. What matters is not where they came from, but how you use them. I hope the next time you see an empty drink container you can see a house that holds words, a container that can hold rice for pouring or a great place to stash your homemade play dough.

Go forth and create!

* Die Template:

* Homemade Play Dough recipes:


Pictures from my blog:


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