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Why We Should Keep Counting M&Ms

December 11, 2017

Like many parents, I first taught my children to count using tangible items. We would count stuffed animals, balloons, balls, and any other toys that happened to be nearby. We do this with young children without really thinking much about it.  


As children start learning basic addition and subtraction, it’s not much of a stretch to use more items to teach. “I have two M&M’s and you have three M&M’s. How many M&M’s do we have all together?” Sound familiar? 


Unfortunately, many people stop using tangible items like these as children progress to higher math, but they can still be a valuable tool. Traditional math curricula tend to slowly fade the use of tangible tools (called manipulatives in math) as children progress through the early elementary grades. Other curricula, like Math U See, still recognize the value of manipulatives for math instruction. 


There are many ways that manipulatives can be used through higher math. Some are quite complex while others are much more basic. If you have a child who learns best through tactile, hands-on activities or through exploration, the use of manipulatives for math instruction beyond basic addition and subtraction may be a great instructional tool for you to use. 



  1. Small items. M&Ms, jelly beans, Legos or any other small item that your child enjoys are great to use. Use them to count up and then add 2 or more groups. Use them to count down as you teach subtraction. Use them to compare groups spacing them out in different sized circles (or other shapes) and lines. Children have to count rather than just look at the length or size of the shape to compare. 

  2. Base 10 blocks. A variation of this is what you find in Math U See. Base 10 blocks can be found at just about any school supply store. Here are some that we like. Base 10 blocks help children learn place value and how individual digits in a number relate to one another. In the number 371, the 3 digit represents 300. Base 10 blocks make this visual and tangible for children. Base 10 blocks can be used like small items as children learn higher level addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Legos can also be used like Base 10 blocks. 

  3. Pizza and brownies! Tasty tools to help children grasp the concept of fractions. Start with small fractions. “Here’s a brownie. Let’s cut it in half so we can each have a piece.” Then work your way up to larger fractions. “The pizza was cut into 8 pieces. You have 1 piece so that is 1/8. I have 2 pieces, so I have 2/8.” By comparing pizzas cut in different ways, you can even compare fractions. “This pizza is cut into four pieces. The other pizza is cut into 8 pieces. Can you see how 1/4 of the first pizza is the same amount as 2/8 of the second one?”


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