9 Manipulatives to Teach Counting to Little Learners

Last Updated on October 9, 2023 by Editorial Team

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If you see children counting the chocolates or gifts they receive on Birthdays, you may appreciate the importance of teaching counting. As the count of goodies (their just-found manipulatives) increases, the grin gets broader. Have you ever thought about what is actually happening behind all this? If you analyze it closely, the kids are building number sense in the process. They count, and by doing so, they analyze how much more or less they receive. Thus, the overall impact is an increase in math intelligence.

But goodies don’t happen every day to kids. Teachers need to have some teaching tools that help kids understand and use counting in daily matters. One of such tools is manipulatives. These maneuverable objects offer action-oriented learning.

Keeping all these things in mind, We’ve curated a list of the top 10 counting manipulatives to teach counting to little learners. These are unique and teach a specific element of counting in an interactive way. Teachers are advised to have an early on-hand experience of these manipulatives before employing them as classroom intervention material.

Kids-friendly counting manipulatives for preschoolers

1. Abacus


Well, we have long advocated the benefits of the Abacus in many of our posts. Abacus is indeed a great manipulative for math aspirants to learn and solve mathematical operations such as addition, division, and multiplication, etc., quickly. Teachers can step a level down and start by introducing counting through the abacus first. Early adapting to the abacus as a math manipulative benefits multiple ways in the long term. Good practice makes you able to do calculations really fast.

For all of those unaware, Abacus is a manual aid for a counting activity. It consists of beads or disks that can be moved up and down on a series of sticks or strings within a usually wooden frame. Numbers are physically constructed and manipulated in Abacus. You can select any of the several available on amazon or create one of your own! You can level up after the counting session and start with basic level abacus formula operations. There are different types of abacus that can fulfil a variety of learning needs.

2. Counting Balance

Counting Balance

Counting balance is a perfect tool to introduce counting to kids. As the name suggests, balancing the scale is the central theme of this manipulative. The box provides numbers and monkeys to balance the scale. The addition of all the numbers on one pan equals the number of monkeys on the other pan. By adding monkeys one by one to the pan, kids grasp the concept of counting by one. And yes, they improve their gripping abilities, too.

Mathematical operations are written on the provided cards for little learners to solve. Learners can imbibe the counting concept by starting with the number 1 and incrementing it with +1 and further steps. Besides counting, This STEM educational game also claims to improve spatial awareness and other Executive Functions crucial for brain development in kids.

3. Counting bears with bowl

Counting bears with bowl

How about a teaching tool that could teach counting, sorting, and patterning together in a single unit? Counting bears and the matching bowl is one such manipulative that can deliver multiple purposes. Designed to deliver ease of learning by introducing a gamification element, this manipulative can ingrain the concept of counting deeply in the little learner’s minds.

Perfect for doing activities like hands-on measurements activities, matching the digits with the corresponding number of bears, and doing basic math operations such as addition and subtraction. Its most commendable role is in the development of cognitive function. The ease of identifying the pattern, establishing similarity, and matching the bears with bowls of the same color makes this manipulative an able intelligence-booster in kids. Fit for preschoolers and growing kids, the teachers can employ it as a classroom intervention item and supplement number sense books with something more tangible.

4. Money for Kids

Money for Kids

Managing money is probably the most crucial utility of a counting class that young learners attend as a part of the early education curriculum. So, why not employ a counting session in actual money counting activity? This STEM-based play money manipulative works amazingly when you want to drill in this fundamental life-management skill deep into the minds of little learners. Teach them the concept of adding and subtracting to help them learn income and expenditure; further, you can train them on the idea of how to break dollars into several smaller denominations.

Learning Resource’s Pretend and Play Money for Kids is a great manipulative that includes 20 x $1, 20 x $5, 10 x $10, and 10 $20 bills. Other than these, the set also includes a full assortment of 90 plastic coins, including 30 pennies, 20 nickels, 20 dimes, and 20 quarters. Teaching kids how to count money and divide it into pennies, quarters, dimes to the dollar, etc., will never be a pain when this manipulative is in your teaching kit. It offers a perfect play-to-learn ambiance for kids, propelling them to jump on to a bit advanced concepts such as number sequences.

5. Counting sticks

Counting sticks

Who has seen digits like 1,2,3, etc., in a tangible form? Means, what qualifies to be a number 3, for instance? If we introspect deeply, these digits are just the representation of a quantity in a data set. Counting rods offer you the physical representation of quantities corresponding to numbers the kid come across in their books.

Counting rods offer kids a playful tool to understand numbers and the way the quantities change as a result of math operations performed on these. This intelligence enhancement support comes with pre-printed cue blocks having numbers and mathematical operations signs. Teachers can explain the quantified version of operations like 2+3 = 5 and several others by replacing digits with the corresponding numbers of sticks.

It is a wholesome artifact[1] that traverses young children to complicated number relationships and instils them with a confident approach for solving math problems of basic types. Colorful make attracts young learners and encourages them to try it more often. With repetitions in practice, the brain gets the requisite workout. Other benefits include enhanced hand-eye coordination, better reasoning ability, and a boost in visual discrimination.

6. Cuisenaire Rods

 Cuisenaire Rods

Cuisenaire Rods were developed by and named after a Belgian teacher Georges Cuisenaire. These were introduced in1940s but refuse to lose relevance even today. These rods are color-coded to denote different lengths, ranging from 1cm to 10cm.

Kids need to learn counting to measure length as well as quantity. Cuisenaire rods offer an absorbing learning material that can help kids grasp concepts like fractions and other measurement basics. When you show how kids can break a 10 cm-long rod into 10 small blocks of one cm each, they internalize the idea of fraction and equal distribution.

By manually adding the blocks to form the train, or doing the reverse, kids gain practical learning of what addition and subtraction look like in action. Several other basic concepts comprising early geometry, area and volume, and division, etc. become easy for kids to learn.

7. Sorting Tray

Sorting Tray

Counting is a skill and sorting, or grouping is an activity that utilizes this skill. The manipulative sorting tray finds a place in our list because of the ease with which it teaches counting and sorting to young learners. Rubberized fruity fun, dino, farm animals, and modes of transport models are used in this sorting tray set to work up young learners’ cognitive and reasoning capabilities.

Teachers can assign each slot to a specific counter as a demo and ask students to follow suit. The kids match the counters in any slot and group all similar ones in those respective slots. Teachers can stretch this activity to subitizing activity too. Sorting Tray manipulative serves multiple purposes. The sorting tray can teach kids counting by encouraging kids to pick and put counters in slots one by one. Also, while matching the counters, kids learn to sort things according to shape, size, and color. Finally, the act of picking the counter and placing it in the correct slot strengthens reasoning and fine motor skills.

8. Ten Blocks

 Ten Blocks

The picture of Ten Blocks chosen here shows in quite a transpicuous manner what all activities students can do with Ten Blocks. This manipulative for learning to count comprise tens, hundreds, and thousands blocks. To ease the process of association, each block is color-coded.

Students can familiarize themselves with all the concepts that are nothing but the application of counting skills. For example, kids can find perform operations by adding and removing cubes from blocks. They can proceed further to learn fractions and early geometry. Add cubes to create differently shaped blocks and teach children the concepts like area and volume too.

Base 10 block manipulative offers a systematic learning tool to build early math concepts. Its simplicity and ease of use make this learning intervention material an unfailing solution to offer individualized support. Employ these to give a solid start by teaching counting and building higher concepts like place value, number sense, and math reasoning concepts like greater or smaller, etc.

9. Counters like Clips

Counters like Clips

Counters are widely used manipulatives for learning mathematical operations. An act of concatenating links corresponds to the adding process, as adding is nothing but counting one by one to begin with. Choose more than one link to add, and you arrive at the idea of dodging numbers. When mathematical signs and numbers confuse you, links offer you an unambiguous way of building the early math concepts.

Clips are color-coded to enhance students’ association abilities and reasoning skills. The process of linking cubes supplements geoboard activities most aptly; together, these can strengthen children’s fine motor skills. Provide kids with cue cards having questions like 2+4=6, and ask them to perform this operation using these linking cubes. Also, a variety of shape ideas can drive kids towards flawless estimation, which they can employ in making picturesque ‘links arts.’ This engaging process can help augment mental concentration in kids with attention deficit disorders.

Best ways to use these counting manipulatives

Manipulatives for counting and learning various math operations offer a gamified way of absorbing basic numeric concepts. You can use these manipulatives in the following ways:

  • A classroom intervention material: Introduce these learning enablers to young kids in relevant classes and expound the learning process of doing math operations in a way that makes complete sense to kids.
  • As a home activity material: Homeschoolers or preschoolers can get their daily dose of mental stimulus by doing various pattern formation, sequencing, and grouping activity. It eventually makes them geometry-ready.[2]
  • Therapy toys: Apart from delivering educational objectives, these manipulatives work as therapeutic toys for stroke or other patients who need to improve their brains’ plasticity with practice. Regular use helps these patients regain their calculative and reasoning powers.

Wrapping up,

Manipulatives can help teach and promote deeply ingrained learning of the counting concept. However, these don’t stop at boosting calculation abilities only. Some manipulatives can continue to stay relevant while stepping up from the counting stage. With correct intervention and motivation, the teachers can employ manipulatives to make math fun while helping children fight away all the learning-associated anxieties.


[1] Bartolini M.G., Martignone F. (2014) Manipulatives in Mathematics Education

[2] Fifth Graders’ Enumeration of Cubes in 3D Arrays: Conceptual Progress in an Inquiry-Based Classroom, Michael T. Battista, Journal for Research in Mathematics Education

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