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How to Use Math Manipulatives in Middle School Math

Use math manipulatives with your middle school students to enhance understanding of key concepts.

Throughout my teaching journey, I’ve noticed some remarkable changes in the math education scene. One of the best things is how we’re now using math tools (or, as we call them, math manipulatives) with our students. This is basically giving them a handy tool that supports their learning style to tackle math concepts! Personally, I wish I had these tools back in the day. Learning math would have been less tricky and way more fun! Just like each student has their own way of learning, there are a bunch of different math manipulatives to pick from. I’m excited to share some of my favorites that I use with my students!

Benefits of Using Math Manipulatives Correctly

Now, let’s talk about why these math manipulatives are such a big deal, especially in middle school math. Using them the right way has some awesome benefits!

Reap the rewards of using math manipulatives with your middle school students by introducing hands-on activities related to the standards you are teaching.

It’s so rewarding to see our students who have been having a tricky time finally have the lightbulb moment once they utilize these tools. They start to see math can be approachable and attainable!

First off, math manipulatives make those complex math concepts way more understandable. Imagine trying to conquer a new hobby or skill without the right tools. It’s tough! The same goes for math. When students can touch, move, and play around with these tools, they have their ah-ha moment. Suddenly, things just click.

Another bonus is how manipulatives make math feel less like a chore and more like a fun adventure for our middle school students. It’s not just about numbers on a page but also about exploring and discovering. When our students can get some tactile learning in with hands-on math activities, they’re able to see the problem come alive and pursue curiosity.

Here’s the best part! Using these tools isn’t just a one-size-fits-all deal. There’s a perfect manipulative for every student and every concept. Part of our job is to build a toolbox with the right gadgets for every job that our students can carry on with them.

Different Hands-on Math Manipulatives to Use

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and talk about some math manipulatives that help our middle schoolers have math success. These are the tools that I’ve found work like a charm with my students, making those math hurdles a whole lot easier to clear.

1. Fraction Bars

Fraction bars are visual aids that can make fractions more concrete. Students can physically manipulate these bars to understand addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division of fractions. For learners who benefit from hands-on experiences, fraction bars provide a tangible way to explore and master fractional concepts.

Fraction bars like these are great to use as math manipulatives and are perfect for helping students understand fractions.

In Action

Fraction bars, or fraction strips, are key players when it comes to teaching fractions! I distribute fraction bars to my students so we have actual models we use while working in class. I also have them keep a printed image of them in their binders or notebooks for quick access. Instead of staring at numbers on a worksheet, they get hands-on with the bars. We might work with a problem, such as someone having three-fourths of a pizza and wanting to share it with their friend, who has two-thirds of a pizza. With fraction bars or strips, they can physically combine and split their portions, visually understanding the process of adding and subtracting fractions.

I dive deeper into teaching with models and fraction strips in my post Teaching Fractions in Middle School: Using Models.

2. Algebra Tiles

I love using algebra tiles to introduce algebraic concepts. They help my students model and solve equations visually, making abstract ideas more accessible. For my visual and tactile learners, these tiles serve as a bridge between numeric and algebraic representations that help them to form a deeper understanding of algebra.

In Action

When it comes time to tackle equations, I make sure to hand out algebra tiles. The classroom transforms into an equation-solving playground. I have found that students are more eager to jump into challenging problems like this one when they have manipulatives. For instance, when solving a problem like the one in the picture, they can physically move the tiles as they go through the solving process helps them see the equation in action. The movement helps my tactile learners remember the steps with more ease!

3. Geometric Shapes

I don’t know about you, but I know when it comes to geometry, looking at the flat shapes on paper doesn’t do much for me. Once I have those shapes in my hand, the game completely changes! I see the same thing happen with my students. Geometric shapes bring geometry to life in the classroom! Our students can explore properties, relationships, and spatial concepts by manipulating these shapes. This benefits visual and kinesthetic learners as they engage in hands-on activities to grasp geometric principles. From identifying angles to constructing shapes, the possibilities are endless.

In Action

Once we begin exploring angles, lines, and polygons, I pull out the geometric shape. We could just draw shapes on paper, which we do, but I have found that when my students physically hold and manipulate geometric shapes, they’re able to see the angles better and the different types of shapes and their features. For example, they might be constructing a triangle with specific angles. As they place each shape, they discover the angles fit perfectly, reinforcing the understanding of geometric properties through hands-on exploration.

4. Number Lines

Number lines are versatile tools for teaching various math concepts. They aid in understanding number relationships, addition, subtraction, and even more advanced topics like inequalities. I also pull these out for when we are working with decimals and fractions to help my students see the sizes of the numbers and increments of numbers decreasing or increasing more easily. This benefits learners who thrive with visual aids, providing a clear representation of numeric sequences and operations.

In Action

Decimal and fraction time? Number lines to the rescue! As we dive into the world of decimals and fractions, I have my students use number lines to visualize the sequence and relationships between numbers. For example, we use them to plot equivalent fractions on a number line. We start with the fraction 1/2. Students mark this fraction on the number line, perhaps between 0 and 1.

For the next equivalent fraction, say 2/4, students identify the corresponding point on the number line. They quickly realize that the point representing 2/4 aligns perfectly with the midpoint of 1/2. The visual clarity on the number line showcases that 1/2 and 2/4 are, indeed, equivalent fractions.

As we explore further, marking points for fractions like 3/6 and 4/8 on the same number line, students witness a pattern emerge. Equivalent fractions fall on the same spot. This illustrates the concept that different fractions can represent the same position on a number line.

Looking for more resources and information for teaching fractions with ease in your classroom? Make sure to check out Teaching Fractions with the Ultimate Fraction Toolkit to discover the notes, games, and practice activities it holds!

5. Dice and Playing Cards as Math Manipulatives

A couple of my other favorite math manipulatives to use with my middle schoolers include dice and playing cards. My students literally become giddy when I pull these out because they know the math practice is about to feel more like a game! Turning math into a game with dice and playing cards can engage a variety of learners. As we all know with our lovely middle schoolers, they thrive in a competitive or interactive setting. These tools take learning addition, subtraction, multiplication, and probability and turn it into an engaging math experience. Incorporating friendly competitions or group activities can cater to different learning styles and foster a positive attitude towards math. Plus, it helps some of them get their energy out!

Add playing cards and dice to your list of math manipulatives to use in math games your students will want to play over and over again.

In Action

A lively game my students love playing with dice and playing cards to review multiplication is Multiplication Mayhem. I have my students working in small groups of 4, each ready with a set of dice and a deck of playing cards.

How to Play Multiplication Mayhem

  1. Each group has a pair of dice and a deck of playing cards.
  2. A student from one partnership rolls the dice to determine the factors for a multiplication problem. Let’s say they roll a 4 and a 3.
  3. Simultaneously, the other partner draws two cards from the deck. Perhaps they get a 5 of hearts and a 2 of spades.
  4. The partnership multiplies the numbers from the dice (4 × 3) and the numbers on the playing cards (5 × 2).
  5. The result of each multiplication is then added together (12 + 10) to get the final score.
  6. The other partnership in the group goes through steps 2 – 5.
  7. The group with the highest score wins the round!

6. Clocks and Money

This one may have you taking a double-take but these are real life math skills our students must be prepared to handle. The concepts of time and money are ones we use every single day. In a few years, they’ll be getting jobs or maybe have already started working in some capacity. They will encounter situations where they’ll need to make change, count a drawer of money, make decisions based on a budget, or possibly even check the time on a clock without access to their phones. Scary, I know.

Using fake money to teach money management and clocks to manipulate time caters to learners who benefit from applying math concepts to everyday scenarios. These manipulatives connect math to students’ daily lives, making math more relatable and engaging!

Use an analog clock and some index cards as math manipulatives your students will use in a game-like setting.

In Action

There are a couple of activities that I do with my middle schoolers to make this hands-on for them. The first activity is a time management challenge. I give my students analog clocks and a set of time-related challenges on index cards. The challenges could include tasks like setting the clock to a specific time, calculating the duration between two times, or even solving word problems. The interactive nature of the exercise reinforces their ability to read analog clocks while sharpening their time management skills. I like to work on problems where the answer is in a different hour, or where they switch from a.m. to p.m.

An example of an activity where I would use money is a budgeting activity. I give each student a set of play money. Then, I give them a budgeting scenario, such as planning a party or managing expenses for a week. They need to ensure their expenses align with the budget, using the play money to represent income and spending.

These are both great skills that might not be on the grade level standards but represent real life math skills students need. I have found that by combining these skills with real life math projects and word problems I can weave them into our lessons with other skills.

Engaging Math Manipulatives Create a Positive Math Experience

As we wrap up our exploration of these dynamic math manipulatives, it’s evident that the middle school math class is no longer confined to the pages of textbooks. These manipulatives have transformed our learning environment into an engaging and interactive space. By bringing these manipulatives into action, we’ve witnessed math becoming more than just numbers on a page.

Adding math manipulatives to your curriculum not only makes learning fun for your students but will help them better understand key concepts you are teaching.

The classroom has evolved into a place where math is not only learned but experienced, where concepts are not just memorized but understood. Through the lens of these manipulatives, math class becomes a dynamic journey of exploration, application, and discovery. Here’s to fostering a love for math that goes beyond the classroom, setting our middle schoolers on a path where math isn’t a challenge but a thrilling adventure waiting to unfold!

Save for Later

Remember to save this post to your favorite math Pinterest board when in need of ideas for math manipulatives!


Welcome to Cognitive Cardio Math! I’m Ellie, a wife, mom, grandma, and dog ‘mom,’ and I’ve spent just about my whole life in school! With nearly 30 years in education, I’ve taught:

  • All subject areas in 4th and 5th grades
  • Math, ELA, and science in 6th grade (middle school)

I’ve been creating resources for teachers since 2012 and have worked in the elearning industry for about five years as well!

If you’re looking for ideas and resources to help you teach math (and a little ELA), I can help you out!



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