Day 17: TEACH WITH TOYS: the teaching manipulatives lurking in your home! (Part I)

~Our 19 DAY JOURNEY of inspiration, activities, and resources continues!~

Need some resources for your Homeschooling or “Suddenly-Homeschooling” family? Let’s take a look at what’s lurking in the toy box!

toy story

I need to preface this post by being up-front: we have quite the collection of teaching manipulatives in our home—mostly wooden and Montessori-inspired that I’ve splurged on here and there over the years. Some of them have earned their keep on delivering amazing and ongoing learning, and others have proven to be a whole lot prettier than they are useful. Sometimes, the simplest most humble of resources have delivered the most bang for their buck. So I want to be clear, I am in no way condemning the purchasing of all teaching manipulatives and resources! In fact, in a future post, I will share our family’s top-picks for beautiful and quality teaching manipulatives you can buy online. “BUT NOT TODAY, ZURG!!!”

Think before you. . . BUY!

As an aspiring minimalist (except when it comes to books. . . sorry Marie Kondo) I am learning to be resourceful when looking for homeschool materials. So this message is as much for me as it is for you: before purchasing that beautiful and expensive manipulative you’ve been eyeing —the one you are convinced in this moment will be the difference between your child’s ultimate success or failure (just me?)— I encourage you to start with what you already have, right in front of you. . . or under your feet. It’s amazing how we can overlook what we have staring right at us in our own homes! With so many families facing financial struggles on top of their “Suddenly-Homeschooling-Journeys” right now, this practice may be of incredible value, or may even be the only option. So join me in taking stock of what tools we already have in our homes (and actually using them!) before we purchase anything.

IMG_5769 - Copy

*Side-effect warning: your kid(s) may love toy school so much that you may decide never to purchase other manipulatives.


TRY SOMETHING FOR ME:  go on to Google or Amazon, and type “teaching manipulatives” in the search bar. Go ahead, try it. Scroll. Swipe. Scroll some more. Don’t add to cart! Ok, now come away. Breathe. Channel Marie Kondo, it’s all good.

Among the first manipulatives that are sure to pop up are these little beauties:

counting cubes

Take a good look. Don’t these things look strangely familiar? Don’t you have about a THOUSAND similar looking brightly-colored bricks that lock together and make you wish for death when you step on one in your bare feet? That’s right… I’m talking about the good old American toy staple: the LEGO.

lego 2

Ok, they aren’t exactly the same thing.  So, let’s compare and contrast. (Wow, do I sound like a school marm or what?)

Ways Counting Cubes & Legos are different:

  • Counting Cubes are square, Lego/Duplo bricks are slightly flattened
  • Counting cubes connect six ways, Lego/Duplo bricks connect two ways

Ways that Counting Cubes & Legos are the same:

  • They both connect
  • They both come in lots of different bright colors
  • They are small and plastic
  • They can both be used as a math manipulative for a variety of lessons & exercises

*Want lessons? There are SO MANY lessons you can teach with Legos throughout the grades! In tomorrow’s post, Part 2 of “Teach With Toys” I will include a collection of math lessons for varying grades that can be taught with Legos/Duplos. Stay tuned!

Next on your scroll through the park? This plastic-rainbow-in-a box: the one, the only, the legendary. . . COUNTING BEARS!

counting bears

These bears have been one of the most popular teaching manipulatives for decades. And it’s no surprise… plastic rainbow bears? It’s like what our country is built on! I’ve never met a child (myself included) who didn’t love Counting Bears. It would be my guess with how many manufacturers continue to make these, and how widely they are still used in schools and homes today, that there’s got to be enough of these little bears to —if properly circulated— furnish every family in the country with their own plastic-rainbow-in-a-box. But I digress. Let’s get to the point: WHAT IS SO SPECIAL ABOUT THESE BEARS?


That’s right. You count them. You sort them by color. You make patterns with them. You add them. You subtract them. They are a group of identical, duplicated, brightly-colored plastic figurines. Gosh, if only we had some sort of replacements lying around so we didn’t have to buy more plastic junk! Oh…. that’s right, we do! In fact, most of us probably have so many “Counting Bear” wannabes laying around the house, we can’t bear it! We’ve been in forced isolation with our plastic junk for weeks, and I’m quite certain half of it comes in rainbow! I’m sure many of us can’t wait to take that trip to the Goodwill drop-off —our duplicated rainbow-junk in tow— just as soon as the world opens back up. Just me?

So, all in all. . . bad news for bears.


*Want lessons? In tomorrow’s post, Part 2 of “Teach With Toys” I will include a list of toys you can use in place of the plastic-rainbow-in-a-box, as well as share a few sample math lessons to get you started with your “Counting Bear” wannabes.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on PLASTIC COINS.

coinsplastic mint purchase link

I’m sorry in advance if you are a plastic coin fan. This one just doesn’t make any cents to me. Using real pennies to purchase counterfeit ones? How have we stooped so low to support the creation of PLASTIC MONEY??? (Master and Visa excluded.) Let’s turn on a dime, bust out the piggy-bank, and give our kids REAL coins to count for a change; coins with weight, and symbolism, and value. (Maybe we can even let them keep a few after the lesson is over. . . money math perk!) If you are concerned about the dirty factor, which I totally get, have your kids give some coins a good old bubble bath and scrub for a bonus practical-life activity! Well, there’s my two cents on that.

So, the moral of this toy story is: before you spend your hard-earned money on teaching manipulatives, spend a few minutes thinking INSIDE THE BOX. . . the toy box that is. Look in there and see what you can see.

Nothing in there that looks very educational to you? No lesson plans suddenly pop out of the Jack-In-the-Box? (Are those even a thing anymore?) Don’t worry! I hear you!

For tomorrow’s post, Part 2 of “Teach With Toys“, I will share a collection of math manipulatives (for varying grades) disguised as toys already hanging around your house! I will even include at-a-glance picture-tutorials for various lessons. (I’m not toying with you!) So join me tomorrow, to infinity and beyond!

Please share this post with another Suddenly-Homeschooling-Family!

Don’t be shy, comment below anything that’s on your mind, or what you’d like to see in an upcoming post! 

Missed a post or three? Click here: Our 19 DAY JOURNEY Archive

Love, ~Our Holistic Homeschool~




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