By Marilyn Burns
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. 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.
3. 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. 4. 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. 2Free 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;...