When I taught a math concept to my first graders, I would have them go practice it using manipulatives in their workbooks from our district’s curriculum. I never thought of how I could deepen learning using math tools for my elementary students. I noticed many students struggled to gain mastery in the concept before we moved on.

For students to gain mastery, they need multiple exposures and time to play around with the concept. This can be through manipulatives, real-word story problems, or games. I started incorporating all three more into my lessons in strategic ways.

Math Tools for Elementary Students #1: Manipulatives

For manipulatives, I made sure I had a wide variety of tools that could help a variety of student learning styles. It also allowed me to pull one that would work best in a given situation. For example, when having students learn basic addition to 10, I would have them use counting bears and linking chains. For addition and subtraction within 20, we used rekenreks and counting cubes. Base ten blocks and number lines and charts were added for addition and subtraction within 100. I believe it is important for students to try many different tools, as they can see what works best for them.

When students are able to make connections between problems on their paper and manipulatives, it makes it less abstract and easier to understand what’s happening. This is important for early education and why I love showering my students with math manipulatives!

Math Tools for Elementary Students #2: Real-World Word Problems

I would present students also with real-world word problems that we could do in the classroom. One day I brought in cereal and we had multiple problems that used them. I went over our procedures and expectations for using them as tools first. Introduced the word problem and modeled it with my own cereal. Then I had them go back to their tables and do it with me. They loved making that connection with their word problems.

A word problem I used was something like, “If Mr. Drabner had 15 Cheerios and gave 7 to Isaac, how many did he have left?” I used this one for whole group instruction. One of the problems I had them do a partner at the end was, “You have 12 Cheerios, your friend gave you 5 more. How many do you have in all?” Students would take turns doing the question and being the partner. These real-life word problems can help your class immensely if they are struggling to understand a concept, as it helps make connections in their brain on items they already know about and the new information they’re learning.

Math Tools for Elementary Students #3: Math Games

The last thing I introduced was through math games. How do we learn as children? Play. I made sure to incorporate more play by purchasing some games from Lakeshore, as I can never have enough of those, but they are costly.

When we went into distance learning, I started using Google Slides and Seesaw more to make math games. They can be self-correcting and provide student choice. I also used some games that saved student work so I could check for understanding.

These games were highly engaging for my students. First was due to it being use on computers. Kids in general love technology and video games. I have a blog post about how gamification can help your classroom here.

I was also able to incorporate fun themes and pictures in the games that made it more engaging. My students started to have intrinsic motivation to practice their math facts!

Students playing with a digital math game

Now it took a bit of work to make these games, but now I have them for my whole teaching career. I created all of my games originally in PowerPoint, but you can make them in Google Slides, Canva, or even Adobe Photoshop.

I highly encourage you to try making some math games for your students. Their engagement will skyrocket and they are great to use during our math centers, as their engagement allows me to work with students without interruptions.

If want to save yourself some time and would like more information on the self-correcting and student choice games or the games that save student work, I’ve provided their links.


I’ve learned throughout my teaching career that math block doesn’t have to be straight from the curriculum. Add some fun things to keep your student engagement up and provide authentic learning opportunities. Using manipulatives, real-world word problems, and math games can make math less abstract, provide engaging interactions, and make connections to a student’s previous background knowledge. All keys to developing mastery.

I hope you’re able to take at least one of these and incorporate it in some small way into your classroom tomorrow =)



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