Containing all the STUFF: Ideas for Organizing Math Manipulatives

I don’t know about you, but one of the hardest parts of my math block is all the STUFF.  Between cubes, pattern blocks, 2 color counters, base ten blocks, and all the rest, it can be such a pain in the neck to distribute and store all those math materials in a way that keeps both you AND your students organized!   And I’m tired of plastic baggies- they rip, or stop zipping, and then they don’t hold anything.  Over my many years of teaching, I’ve figured out so many ways to organize these items- and best of all, they don’t break the bank!  

Color Code It!
I don’t know about you, but I HATE organizing cards and making sure that each pack has the same cards in it.  When I found a stray one on the floor, I never knew where it went, so it would end up in the drawer where I store them all, or just stuck in some random stack of cards somewhere.  So I started color coding my cards.  With my playing cards or sets of cards that came with our math program, I simply used Sharpie markers to put a small colored dot in the corner of each card.  One set is purple, one set is blue, one set is red, etc…  Then when I find a stray card around, I just find the set it goes in and return it.  Seriously, this was life changing.  No more stray cards laying around.  I just put it back with the matching cards!

I also keep sets of regular number cards in my classroom.  Those, I also color coded by printing each set on a different color of cardstock.  Then, when I find a stray card, I can just match up the color.  This also helps if multiple students are working with sets of cards at one table, because the kids know which cards are their own quickly by looking at the color.

Sometimes I find it necessary to differentiate my math centers, and I have found that color coding things makes it so much easier.  For example, in first grade, I had the purple group, the green group, and the blue group.  If I needed to provide different activities for them, I would print them on paper that matched their group color.  This helped them to know which activities they were supposed to be doing and helped them locate the items they needed more quickly.

Contain it!
Containers are ALWAYS a precious commodity in my classroom

Pill bottles are perfect for holding lots of small items like 2-color counters, pennies, centimeter cubes, and even mini-erasers.  Of course, you need the kind with child-friendly caps so that students can open them!  They come in a variety of sizes as well.

Pencil slider cases are another great way to contain items.  I love how they slide out so the items inside stay contained.  I have used these for tens and ones blocks (unfortunately they aren’t big enough for a hundred) and I found they work great for centers.  Of course, a pencil slider box also works great for a dry erase marker and an eraser too!  I use these slider cases to hold supplies for my Fact Fluency Flip Books. 

Snack containers like the ones you can get at Dollar Tree, Walmart, etc… are also great for containing small items or pieces for math games.  A pack of playing cards also fit perfectly into a snack container!

Tupperware containers are also an inexpensive way to contain materials and pass them out to students.  (Am I showing my age that I call them Tupperware containers?)  The Dollar Tree has a huge selection of inexpensive plastic containers that can work for pretty much any manipulative you need to store or organize!  Base ten blocks fit into these containers.

Leftover food containers like dog food containers or yogurt containers can also be a great way to store math manipulatives for students.  Yogurt containers with lids (usually the kind that contain some sort of topping) are absolutely the BEST.  Some dog food brands also have containers with lids as well.  I’ve been known to buy my dog a certain type of food simply because I needed that color lid.  Other containers, such as butter containers or lunch meat containers are also cheap ways to store manipulatives and they hold larger items such as cubes or pattern blocks.

Plastic cups are also a great way to organize math materials for games or activities.  The small red “shot glass” cups from Dollar Tree are perfect for holding a few dice for a game.  Bigger cups can hold cubes, Base 10 blocks, and other larger items.  These are a bit more likely to break than some of the other options, but they are also fairly cheap to replace.  

Buckets, like the small metal ones that are generally plentiful in the Target dollar spot, work well for holding student materials as well.  You could toss in a dry erase marker, some cubes, base ten blocks, or whatever other supplies your students need.    

Store it!

I like to have my math materials organized and ready to go for myself and my students at all times so that I can just grab what they need and go.  

Cubby bins are BY FAR my favorite way to store my math manipulatives.  I make a label for each bin and keep them all on my cubby shelf.  I replaced my bins this summer with some inexpensive ones I found online, and now I have bins with lids.  I have a bin for all of my manipulatives that will fit!  Buttons, color tiles, pattern blocks, wooden shapes, cubes, dice, tangrams, and other items like that all have their own cubby bin.  

Plastic shoe box containers are also a great way to store manipulatives, and they stack nicely on a shelf if you don’t have anything like a cubby bin to house them.  They have lids which help keep items contained.  Bigger bins can be used to store bigger items as well.  

Plastic drawer units are also inexpensive ways to store a lot of things, and they come in a variety of sizes too.  For example, you can use smaller drawers uses to hold things like dice or playing cards.  Larger drawers can store cubes and wooden blocks.  They can stack so they don’t take up a ton of space either.  

The best part about storing math manipulatives is that you can mix and match the methods that work best for you!   Did you find a new tip you hadn’t thought of, or have a new tip to share?  Leave a comment below!


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