Wednesday / July 24

Managing Manipulatives During Math Class…From Playful to Purposeful

Has this ever happened to you…you prepare a manipulatives-based lesson, explain the expectations to your students, pass out all the materials, and then they choose to play around with the manipulatives instead of using them to show their math thinking? Or is it just me??? (This is a rhetorical question – I already know you know what I’m talking about.)

With all of our great intentions, sometimes we just can’t get to the math because the kids keep playing around with the manipulatives. After grappling with this for many years, I finally found a way to manage math manipulative use in a productive way: 1) Focus on manipulatives as tools, 2) Provide both playful and purposeful experiences with the manipulatives, and 3) Create an anchor chart to record their experiences and to redirect them when they get off track.

1. Introduce manipulatives as MATH TOOLS before using them to learn specific concepts

Too often, we jump right into a learning episode with manipulatives prior to giving students the opportunity to explore the manipulatives as tools.

Manipulatives typically serve one of two purposes: they provide a way for students to communicate their thinking, or they act as a scaffold to facilitate mathematical thinking. Either way, giving students time to explore the attributes of the manipulatives before using them as learning tools will help them “see” the ways in which the objects at hand represent the math.

For example, prior to using pattern blocks as a tool for thinking about fractions, students need time to explore ways in which pattern blocks can demonstrate part-to-whole relationships. This exploration may be achieved by engaging students in a “playful vs purposeful” activity, as described below.

2. Invite students to explore PLAYFUL VS PURPOSEFUL uses of the tools

When my students used to play around with manipulatives instead of use them as intended for math thinking, I would give them the “toys vs tools” lecture. You know how that goes, “I gave you these pattern blocks so you could use them as math tools, not for you to play with as if they are toys. These manipulatives are not toys, they are tools!”

After many years of unsuccessfully delivering the “toys vs tools” lecture, I finally admitted that it wasn’t working. Instead, I came up with a process for helping students experience the distinction between using these tools in a playful way vs a purposeful way and when each of these modes was appropriate.

  • I begin with a simple two- to three-minute conversation about the tool. What do you notice about it? Have you used this before? What do you think you might do with it? What should you not do with it (e.g., throw, flick, etc.)?
  • Next, I give the students 5 minutes to playfully explore the attributes of the tool, creating images and figures however they would like to. During these 5 minutes, I rotate through the room, asking students what they’re creating.
  • Then, I bring students back together to chat about what they created. Sometimes we do a gallery walk to see what others made. We talk about being creative with these tools and when it’s appropriate to use them in playful ways (during free time, centers, etc.).
  • Finally, I facilitate a direct conversation about how we’re going to use these tools in a purposeful way. In this case, we are going to use the pattern blocks to look at relationships between the smaller blocks and the larger ones. I’ll give the students a purposeful task such as, “Show all the ways you can create a hexagon using any of the blocks.” Then I’ll give them 10-15 minutes to complete the purposeful task.

Using this process allows students to distinguish between playful vs purposeful use of the manipulatives, noting that there is a time and a place for both. And, if you create an anchor chart, such as the one described below, you’ll end up with a management tool you can use for days and weeks to come.

3. Initiate an ANCHOR CHART that will support manipulatives management for days or weeks

As your students explore the playful vs purposeful ways to use the manipulatives, carefully construct an anchor chart, recording ways in which they created both playful and purposeful representations. Take photos of their creations, print them out, and add them to the anchor chart. Then, in the coming days and weeks, use the anchor chart to remind students to use the manipulatives purposefully during math class and playfully at other times during the day.

Introducing and managing manipulatives in meaningful ways provides students with the structure they need to use the tools effectively. Once this is in place, you’ll also want to consider how you will help students make connections between the physical tools and visual/symbolic representations. That’s another topic for another day – more to come on that…

Written by

Kimberly Rimbey serves as the chief Learning officer at KP Mathematics. A lifelong teacher and learner her heart’s work centers on equipping teachers and helping them fall in love with teaching and learning over and over again. Kim’s interests include high-quality professional learning modules, building conceptual understanding through multiple representations and meaningful discourse, and building pedagogical content knowledge that goes beyond the theoretical and into the classroom. Always a teacher at heart, Kim has served in many teaching and leadership capacities within school districts, organizations, and the private sector. She is the co-inventor of KP® Ten-Frame Tiles and has authored and co-authored such publications as Mastering Math Manipulatives and Meaningful Small Groups in Math for Corwin.

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