You find them in classrooms across the nation — buckets of pattern blocks; trays of tiles and cubes; and collections of geoboards, tangrams, counters, and spinners. They've been touted as a way to help students learn math more easily. But many teachers still ask: Are manipulatives a fad? How do I fit them into my instruction? How often should I use them? How do I make sure students see them as learning tools, not toys? How can I communicate their value to parents? Are they useful for upper-grade students, too?

I've used manipulative materials at all levels for 30 years, and I'm convinced I can't — and shouldn't — teach without them. Here are my strategies:

  1. I talk with students about why manipulatives help them learn math. These discussions are essential for first-time users and useful refreshers to refocus from time to time. I precede discussions by giving children time to explore a manipulative. Then we talk about what students noticed and I introduce the concepts they'll learn with the material.
  2. From day one, I set ground rules for using materials. We talk about the similarities and differences between using manipulatives in class and playing with toys or games. With toys or games, children can make up their own rules. With manipulatives, they are given specific problems and activities. I do make clear, however, that they're free to make discoveries and explore new ideas.
  3. It's also important for students not to interfere with one another. I step in when I hear a howl of protest as a student who needs one more yellow tile takes it from another group's table. Sometimes I open up the discussion to the entire class. These impromptu reminders help keep students on track.
  4. I set up a system for storing materials and familiarize students with it. It's important for students to know where and how to store materials. A clear system makes the materials more accessible. Some teachers designate and label space on bookshelves. Others use zip-top plastic bags and portion materials into quantities useful for pairs or groups. Still others place a supply of each material at students' tables so they're always within reach.
  5. Time for free exploration is worth the investment. Whenever I introduce a new material, I allot at least one math period for this. Teacher demonstrations alone are like eating a papaya in front of the class and expecting children to know how it tastes.

    Free exploration time also allows students to satisfy their curiosity so they don't become distracted from the assigned tasks. Expect children to see if tiles can fall like dominoes; build tall towers with rods; or construct rockets out of cubes.

    After children have explored a material, I ask what they've discovered and record their observations on a chart so their classmates can get insights from their ideas. Then I assign a specific task.
  6. For easy reference, I post class charts about manipulative materials. Charts not only send students the message that I value manipulatives, but also help students learn materials' names and how to spell them. In September I post a chart that lists all the materials we'll use during the year. For some materials, I post separate charts to list their shapes and colors. And I leave posted charts of students' discoveries about materials.
  7. Manipulatives are a natural for writing assignments. They provide concrete objects for children to describe.

I let parents get their hands on manipulatives, too. It's important for parents to understand why their children are using materials. Follow up by having children take home materials and activities to do with their families. (Hint: I wait until students have had some experience.)

Marilyn Burns, a household name to elementary teachers across the country, is the creator of Math Solutions inservice programs, offered nationwide. She is also the author of numerous books and articles.