Student Math Toolkits in 3 Easy Steps


Picture this… It’s small group math time and you are working with a set of students in a guided math group. You quickly scan the rest of your class and see that they are all actively engaged in their centers. The best part… they are all solving problems in different ways using their student math toolkits. Now, I know what you are thinking… those toolkits take FOREVER to put together, but I have some shortcuts you can take to save yourself time and money. Yep, that’s right, we are going to put together our student math toolkits in 3 easy steps!

Student math toolkits are super important to have in your classroom. They are a collection of manipulatives and work mats that allow your students to choose different strategies when solving mathematical problems. Math toolkits empower your students to become mathematicians by selecting the tools they want to use when working through problems. So let’s get started by following these 3 simple steps and setting our students on the path to becoming independent mathematical thinkers.

Student Math Toolkit Step #1 – Choose a Container

Each student should have their own math toolkit. You can create a generic class set that is stored somewhere in your classroom. Or, you can give each student their own toolkit to keep in their desk or cubby for the school year. Here are some recommendations from other teachers who have already put them together.

  • Mesh Zipper Pouches (aff) – Available in a multi-colored set or black zippers, these lightweight bags are large enough to fit manipulatives and work mats along with a name label on the outside of each bag if you want to assign them to your students
  • Pencil Boxes (aff) – Grab two sets of these and add in the math manipulatives you want your students to use. Any reference charts will have to be a smaller size and can be taped on the outside of the box or inside the lid.
  • 3-Ring Pencil Pouches (aff) – Smaller like the pencil boxes, but can easily be kept in a folder.
  • Ziplock Bags (aff) – Your student math toolkit doesn’t have to be expensive and fancy. Use a ziplock bag to store the work mats and math tools.
  • Craft Boxes – Visit your local Dollar Tree or craft store and take a look at their craft boxes. Grab a class set that is easy on your wallet.
Photo courtesy of Jessica Butanda

Step #2 – Add Manipulatives

You have the perfect container for your student math toolkits. The next step is to fill it up with manipulatives your students will need during whole group instruction and small group centers. A wise tip from many of our teacher colleagues. “Only add those manipulatives your students will need for the current topic.” If you are not working on time, then your students don’t need clocks. If money is not in your lessons, they don’t need coins. Not working on place value, then no base ten blocks.

I also recommend letting your students ‘play’ with their manipulatives before being asked to use them for math. I set a timer for a short amount of time (3-5 minutes). Once the timer goes off, we no longer use our manipulatives as “toys”, but rather as “tools”. Explicitly teach your students how to use each manipulative as you add it to their math toolkit. A great way to help your students learn about their manipulatives and the appropriate ways to use them is with our Number Sense and Math Tools math packet. Introduce a manipulative and then have your students practice using it with some of the no-prep activities in this packet.

Many of these manipulatives you can find in your classroom cabinets, closets, or with your district-adopted math curriculum. But just in case you are missing a few things, here are some links. (They all come from our Amazon affiliate account)

Student Math Toolkit Step #3 – Add the Work Mats

You have the manipulatives your students need organized nicely in the container. The third and final step to putting together your student math toolkits is to add some work mats. Your students will use these work mats with the manipulatives to solve math problems. You can also include a few math practice activities, such as counting charts, number writing practice pages, and number identification cards.

All of the work mats mentioned here can be found in our CORE Binder, along with a ton of ELA, Science, and Social-Emotional student activity mats. You can grab the entire binder on TPT, or just click on each individual page using your ETTC Premium Membership account.

Days in School Chart

Use this chart from Day 1 as you mark off each day of school all the way through the year. Your students can work on grouping numbers into sets of ten on the chart. Then practice counting by tens, as well as counting on from a given number to identify how many days you have been in school. This chart is also a great way to keep all of your students engaged through calendar time, especially when you may have only one calendar helper each day.

Subitizing Cards

Counting objects in a straight line is much easier than looking at a group of dots or objects and knowing how many there are. Subitizing cards helps your students quickly identify how many are in a group without having to count the dots individually. I recommend starting with cards that contain up to 5 dots and then moving on to cards that contain up to 10 dots. You can play a game with your students by holding up a card for 3 seconds and then have them write the number on their whiteboard.

Number Lines

This work mat will come in handy in so many ways. You can use these to count forward and backward or as an addition or subtraction strategy. Put this mat in a page protector and have your students use a marker to model their thinking when solving problems. A number line can also be a great visual to help your students learn to count forward or backward from a given number.

Bead Rack Mats

Bead racks are becoming a favorite manipulative in a lot of classrooms these days. Instead of spending a small fortune on a set of mini bead racks, you can make your own using pipe cleaners and white and red pony beads. Their homemade bead racks will look like a large bracelet with either 5 or 10 beads of each color. This student tool will pair well with this work mat. They can model the problem on their bracelet bead rack and then draw their thinking on the work mat.

100 Chart

Who doesn’t use a 100 chart as a work mat during math time? It is an important piece of your student math toolkits. Your students can use a 100 chart to practice counting by 1s, 2s, 5s, and 10s. They can practice counting forward and backward, recognizing number patterns, counting on or back from given numbers, etc. This chart is extremely versatile.

Ten Frames

Ten frame cards are another very important work mat to have in your student math toolkits. Use these to model numbers, practice addition facts, work on place value with the teen numbers, and practice subtraction facts. Use these mats with manipulatives in the boxes, or put them in page protectors and have your students draw circles or Xs in the boxes when working.

Number Charts

Great for early learners, your students can practice tracing and writing numbers. Place these charts in page protectors and have your students practice writing their numbers every day as a warm-up before your math block begins. Once they’ve mastered writing numbers, they can practice filling in ten frames and/or coloring a certain number of objects to practice one-to-one correspondence.

Number of the Day

This is one of my favorite work mats to have in my student math toolkits. It helps your students practice a wide range of math skills on one work mat. During your morning meeting, math warm-up, calendar time, or any other time of the day, give your students a given number. This will be the “Number of the Day”. Your students will write that number on the card at the top and then start answering the rest of the questions related to that particular number. What is One More? One Less? Ten More? Ten Less? Is the number even or odd? Can your students create a fact family using that number? And so much more!

Place Value Charts

You can use these charts in different ways. Have your students learn how to add using base ten blocks by placing the correct number of tens and ones in the chart. Or, I like to use them as number-building mats. Students are given a number and have to “create” that number using their base ten blocks.

Part-Part Whole Charts

This chart can be another quick warm-up for your students. Pull out the dice in their toolkit and have them roll. They will then build or draw each number in each of the part boxes. From there, they add the two parts together to create the whole, or sum.

The other alternative is to use them during whole group when you are working on solving addition and subtraction problems. If you are working on addition, your students can draw or model with double-sided counters in the ‘parts’ boxes to construct the ‘whole’. If it is subtraction that you are working on, they start with the ‘whole’ box and work towards solving the missing ‘part’.

Daily Graphing Mat

I love using this work mat either at the end of the day (if time allows), or first thing in the morning to get our day started. Give your students a “Question of the Day” and have them choose a few possibilities that could be options on their graph. Set a timer for a small amount of time (3-5 minutes) and have your students walk around the classroom, asking their classmates the question and choosing an answer on their graph. Each student will gather and record data. When the timer goes off, they will return to their seats and answer the questions based on the data they collected.

Before and After Mat

This is a mat that can be used to help your students work on counting forward and backward by one. Write a number in the middle box and then have your students count forward by one to fill in boxes to the right of the number. Then do the opposite and count backward by one to fill in the boxes to the left of the middle number. You can make this a partner activity by having your students give their partner a number and they complete the set of boxes. Then they switch spots and the other student shares a number.

Excellent job putting your student math toolkits together in these 3 easy steps. Yes, it takes a little bit of time at the start, but you will now be using these toolkits for years to come. I recommend numbering them and assigning a number to each student to use during the school year. This way, each student has the same toolkit all year, but you do not have to switch names when students move in and out of your classroom.

The best part is that now that you’ve created them, your students can help you clean and organize them at the end of each school year. Spend a little bit of time before the end of school and have your students do a math toolkit check. Do they have all of their manipulatives and work mats? Once they’ve been checked, tuck them away in a closet or cabinet for the following year. Win-Win!

Written by – Janessa Fletcher


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