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Manipulatives help students with math problems

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After school care providers that are working with kindergarten and first grade students should have some kind of manipulative or counter to help them work addition and subtraction problems. A manipulative is a teaching term for an object that can be seen, held, and used to demonstrate an amount. Army men, dominoes, checkers or coins are examples of a manipulative.

Teachers use a manipulative to teach addition and subtraction in this way. If the problem is three plus five, the student first makes a pile of three objects, and then makes a pile of five objects. Then, the student counts how many objects are in the piles. It lets the student see the numbers in a different way, and makes the problem more “real”. There are seven different ways that people learn information. Visual thinkers, people who think in mental images, have an easier time understanding math when it is presented to them this way.

The pictured manipulative is based on an abacus, one of the first adding machines. It was made from scrap wood, a dowel rod, and ten large wooden beads that fit onto the dowel and slide easily. To make one, cut a piece of wood for the base that is about ten inches long. Cut two sides that are about four inches long. Drill a hole in the top of each side that is the same size as the dowel rod. Screw or nail the sides to the ends of the base. Push the dowel rod through one side, add ten beads, and then push the rod through the other side. Use a drop of white glue to hold the rod in the holes. Use a fine tip permanent marker to write the numbers on the beads.

Another simple counter can be made by putting ten wood beads on a string, and knotting both ends so that the beads don’t fall off. Write the numbers one through ten on the beads with a fine point permanent marker.

If the student needs to add five plus three, slide the first five beads to one end, and then slide over three more. The number on the last bead, eight, gives the answer.

Once the student is shown how the counter works, the leader can let them learn their homework with less personal attention.

©Paula Hrbacek All rights reserved. Please link to this article instead of reposting it. For reprint rights use the contact form at



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