Math (or maths) manipulatives are concrete items (meaning that they are solid and can be picked up and moved, as opposed to abstract items) and are essential to early years learning.
Having a tangible object that can be moved around in a maths problem is far easier for students to contextualise instead of considering abstract objects.
John had 6 watermelons and Suzie had 2 watermelons. Later in the day, Suzie was given 5 more watermelons. Who has the most watermelons?
Doing this math sum in an abstract way, a child will need to visualise the objects being discussed. With concrete items, they can be physically moved around to help students problem-solve.
Concrete items can be anything from counters to toys. However, if you're teaching students via distance learning or homeschooling, you don't need to pay high prices for some great math manipulatives. You probably have lots of useful items already around your home.
Here are some everyday household items you can use for math manipulatives (concrete items).
Nearly every household has some spare buttons just sitting around in a sewing basket. They're also good math manipulatives because they are the kind of everyday item that falls off clothes (minus) and can be added on to clothes (plus). Real-world learning!
These little fluffy pom poms came from a craft pack and are so easy to find in any craft store. They make fun math manipulatives because they are easy to pick up with tongs (no slipping) and place down somewhere. You can even glue them on to paper.
Some call them paddle pop sticks or lolly sticks (depends where you are from) but they are so handy as a math manipulative because they have nice straight edges for making shapes. They are also great to bundle together if you're learning tens and ones. Again, like the fluffy pom poms, they can be glued to paper if necessary. Find them in any craft store or collect them from used lollies.
Every household has these floating around. Bottle tops can come from any type of drink bottle and they make great manipulatives because they can be written on so easily! Write numbers on them for a sequencing activity. Write factors of numbers and group them or even just use them as counters to move around.
I particularly love this idea for math manipulatives because it's a great everyday item, easy to find and easy to adjust. Past spirals, macaroni or even bows are handy little math manipulatives. Light-weight and easy to move around. You can paint them with glitter or whatever you fancy and they are perfect for counting.
Homemade or shop-bought, play doh is the ultimate math manipulative because it's so versatile! Stretch it, bend it, shape it into balls. You can use it in so many ways. You can use different colours for different parts of the problem too.
Twigs and rocks
You can just walk to your garden and grab some leaves, rocks or twigs to create some wonderful natural math manipulatives. Readily available, real-world items and fully recyclable! Natural is often the best way.