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Manipulatives for Middle Schoolers

Math is so much more fun when it can be played! Dominoes and counting bears, M&M candies and fun blocks, activities and hands-on learning games all take the sting out of learning how to count, sort, add, and subtract. What a great way to enjoy school!

Then come the middle school years. Although visual and tangible learning tools are no less valuable during middle school, ideas become more elusive as our children outgrow the early learning resources and suggestions. But, there are age-appropriate options that can help older kids better grasp math concepts and have some fun in the process!

Manipulative Suggestions


Although the actual construct of this dice game is one of chance, many middle school math concepts are natural components of the game. An understanding of Yahtzee can go a long way toward teaching the principle of probability, for instance. Make this game a part of family game night or non-school play time, then refer back to it as you encounter concepts that can be illustrated by the game.

Three-Dimensional Shapes

Shape blocks often come into the picture in the toddler years, so by middle school students really think of them as baby toys. But, three-dimensional shapes remain quite helpful even in high school geometry! Consider how much easier it is for students to comprehend angles and relationships such as similarity and congruency if they can actually hold the shapes instead of just seeing them in two-dimensional format.

Instead of using childish plastic shapes, show your student how to use firm cardstock to create his or her own shapes. The process of making the shapes can help show just how the various sides and corners interact with one another.

Base Ten Blocks

As parents and teachers, we set aside base ten blocks far too early, as these handy manipulatives are very helpful for early algebraic concepts. Although your student may feel he or she has outgrown base ten blocks, there are a couple of ways to make them feel a little more grown-up.

Turning the blocks over and using the underside of the blocks to represent negatives can help tremendously as students begin to work more with negative numbers – and make it feel like there is a “special” way for older students to use the blocks!

Companies such as Math-U-See and Didax offer algebraic overlays that help explain how we have to determine the value of “x” in an algebraic equation. By making these a middle-school-only resource, you can help your student see that the blocks grow with him or her.

The abstract concepts that begin to filter into math during middle school are challenging for concrete minds to comprehend, and base ten blocks help make sure those concepts—even concepts such as square roots and polynomials!—have a tangible expression. So don’t give up on them too early!

Implementation and usage of manipulatives may not be quite as intuitive in middle school years as in the early learning and elementary years, but the usefulness remains. With some intentionality and creativity, you and your student can find a variety of ways to provide tangible illustrations of abstract math concepts.

Ann is a missionary kid, second generation homeschooler, pastor's wife, and mom of three. She loves encouraging and equipping others, especially women in the homeschooling and ministry communities. Ann processes best by writing out her thoughts, and she enjoys sharing many of those thoughts on her two blogs, The Hibbard Family and Not Quite Ordinary.

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