The 5 Tools You Need to Build a Math Toolkit

A portion of the links and recommendations below are affiliate links. This means that at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you choose to make a purchase. I have personally used each of these math tools and would not recommend them if I did not appreciate the effectiveness of each tool. 

When you walk into a classroom, you see shelves filled with books, supplies and math manipulatives. At home? You don't have the resources or (or space!) to build such an extensive academic library. There are a few simple math tools you can stock up on that will make math homework a breeze.

What Is A Math Toolkit? 

If you have ever sat at the table helping your child with their homework on a night when it just isn't clicking a math toolkit will be your saving grace. In math education research points to teaching students first with concrete, hands-on materials next moving to representational models like drawings and finally moving to abstract ideas like equations. 

Chances are you have been working in the representational or abstract when your child got stuck and the piece that could get you over the hump is a set of hands-on tools!

1st Grade Math Toolkit

In first grade, students are most focused on strategies for addition and subtraction to 20 and place value to 100. Are there other topics first graders learn and study? Absolutely; but these are the two areas where your child will spend the majority of their time.

Click to Shop Linking Cubes
Linking Cubes- A pack of 100 linking cubes will suffice for most of the work done in first grade. These cubes can be used for basic addition and subtraction, to build fact families, and to build early place value concepts. Linking cubes can be used as individual pieces or stacked together which make them a valuable and flexible tool. 
Click to Shop Counting Chips

Red & Yellow Chips- These are small plastic or foam disks that are red on one side and yellow on the other. They can be used to model addition or subtraction, to practice teen numbers and for practice decomposing numbers such as the partners of ten.  
Click to Shop Counting Bears

Counters - Counters can come in any shape or form. They are simply individual little pieces that can be used to count and represent numbers. Mini Erasers, counting bears and craft stones are all examples of counters. Use something that your child is interested in! 

Click to Shop Stir Straws
Straws- This is primarily a place value tool but straws can also be used individually as counters. Straws, like linking cubes, are another tool that can be physically put together by a child to show that ten ones make a ten. Your child will use small rubber bands to make bundles of ten straws to represent tens and single straws to represent ones. 

Click to Shop Pattern Blocks
Pattern Blocks- Your child will do geometry work in 1st grade and the tool that will serve them from first grade on through fifth grade is a set of pattern blocks. These blocks can be used for activities as simple as naming shapes to activities where shapes are used to compose a new shape. In 3rd grade on, pattern blocks are an excellent hands-on tool for representing fractions.

    2nd Grade Math Toolkit

    In second grade, students are most focused place value including flexible strategies for addition and subtraction to 100, they are using place value based strategies for addition and subtraction to 1,000.

    The most important thing to know about math tools for place value is that there are 3 main types. Groupable tools are tools that your child can physically put together like linking cubes or bundles of straws. Pre-grouped proportional models are already constructed, such as base ten blocks. They are a bit less cumbersome than groupable models once your child is ready for them. Last, pre-grouped non-proportional models such as place value discs or coins are each worth a different value but the value and the size aren't proportionate. Again, this tool is MUCH less cumbersome to work with and, in the case of money, they lend a real life context.

    Each of these tools will be useful to your child throughout the school year.

    Click to Shop Linking Cubes
    Linking Cubes (Groupable Model) - A pack of 100 linking cubes will suffice for most of the work done in first grade. These cubes can be used for basic addition and subtraction, to build fact families, and to build early place value concepts. Linking cubes can be used as individual pieces or stacked together which make them a valuable and flexible tool. 

    Click to Shop Stir Straws
    Straws (Groupable Model)- This is primarily a place value tool but straws can also be used individually as counters. Straws, like linking cubes, are another tool that can be physically put together by a child to show that ten ones make a ten. Your child will use small rubber bands to make bundles of ten straws to represent tens and single straws to represent ones.

    Click to Shop Base Ten Blocks

    Base Ten Blocks (Pre-Grouped Proportional Model)- Base ten blocks are one of the most versitile tools you can put in your toolkit. You can use base ten blocks to model 2 and 3 digit numbers, they are an aid in number comparison, and you can use them to model addition and subtraction of 2 and 3 digit numbers. When your child is in 4th and 5th grade you can even use this tool to model multi-digit multiplication and division!

    Click to Shop Place Value Discs

    Place Value Discs (Pre-Grouped Non-Proportional Model)- This little tool is much more compact than base ten blocks for modeling place value concepts as you move into larger numbers. Most sets also include numbers into the ten and hundred thousands down through decimal numbers. This tool will give you a lot of bang for your buck for years to come.

    Click to Shop Play Money

    Play Money (Pre-Grouped Proportional Model)- When will I use place value in my real life? All of the time. But, for our children, money is an immediate connection. Use pennies to represent ones, dimes to represent tens and dollars to represent hundreds when your child is in 2nd grade. This tool will continue to serve you well. In 5th grade you can use the same exact tool to model decimal numbers! 

    3rd Grade Math Toolkit

    In third grade, your students are spending the majority of their school year on the topics of basic multiplication and division as well as understanding fractions at a basic level. The tools I recommend will support your students in their work towards those goals.

    Click to Shop Counters
    Counters- When you are teaching basic multiplication and division, your students will need experiences with putting equal groups together and breaking into equal groups. You can do this with many items you already have in your home. Beans, crayons, and even shoes would work for this purpose. Another fun tool to use is mini erasers. Because you can find so many shapes and themes you can use them in a variety of math stories and contexts. 
    Click to Shop Tiles
    Square Tiles- Your 3rd grader isn't only understanding multiplication in terms of equal groups, arrays are a HUGE part of multiplication and division understanding. Arrays also lead into an understanding of area as well. Having square tiles on hand allows your child to create and manipulate arrays. 


    Click to Shop Pattern Blocks
    Pattern Blocks- In building an understanding of fractions, pattern blocks are an excellent introductory tool. Students can layer the pattern blocks on top of one another to explore fraction comparison and fraction equivalence. Generally, the hexagon is regarded at "one whole" and students use the other blocks to discover the half, third and sixth. This tool can also be used to meet geometry skills such as composing and decomposing 2-dimensional shapes. 
    Click to Shop Cuisenaire Rods

    Cuisenaire Rods-
     This is an incredibly versatile fraction tool that will support your child in 3rd, 4th and 5th grade. This tool is used to explore fraction equivalence and fraction comparisons. There are no fractions written on the rods so they can be used flexibly and for a variety of applications. 

    Click to Shop Fraction Bars


    Fraction Bars- A tool that is a bit more supportive than Cuisenaire rods would be fraction bars. These bars are pre-labeled and are broken into unit fractions. Your child can represent a variety of fractions by putting the bars together, can use the bars to add fractions with like denominators and can use the bars for fraction comparison and fraction equivalence. If another tool is not in your budget, you can print a set of fraction bars for free online, however, you will get a lot of use out of this tool so investing in a plastic set will serve you well!


    4th Grade Math Toolkit

    In fourth grade, your child is spending the majority of the year on three main goals. First, extending their place value understanding to 1,000,000 and dipping their toe into the idea of decimals. Second, developing an understanding of multi-digit multiplication and division. Finally, your students will further their understanding of fractions.

    Click to Shop Base Ten Blocks
    Base Ten Blocks (Pre-Grouped Proportional Model)- Base ten blocks are one of the most versitile tools you can put in your toolkit. This was a tool used back in 2nd grade and it makes a reappearance in 4th. While this place value tool represented ones, tens and hundreds in 2nd grade, you can now rename flats as "one" and use the sticks as "one tenth" and cubes as "one hundredth" to practice decimal work. On a completely different topic, base ten blocks can be used to model multi-digit multiplication and division through the area model! 

    Click to Shop Place Value Discs
    Place Value Discs (Pre-Grouped Non-Proportional Model)- Place value disks are going to be your  go-to tool for all things place value and decimals in 4th grade. Pair them with a place value chart (you can find one online or recreate your own on scrap paper or a white board) and this tool will support place value AND operations for numbers from the decimals to the millions!

    Click to Shop Pattern Blocks
    Pattern Blocks- In building an understanding of fractions, pattern blocks are an excellent introductory tool. Students can layer the pattern blocks on top of one another to explore fraction comparison and fraction equivalence. Generally, the hexagon is regarded at "one whole" and students use the other blocks to discover the half, third and sixth. This tool can also be used to meet geometry skills such as composing and decomposing 2-dimensional shapes. 

    Click to Shop Cuisenaire Rods

    Cuisenaire Rods-
     This is an incredibly versatile fraction tool that will support your child in 3rd, 4th and 5th grade. This tool is used to explore fraction equivalence and fraction comparisons. There are no fractions written on the rods so they can be used flexibly and for a variety of applications. 


    Click to Shop Fraction Bars


    Fraction Bars- A tool that is a bit more supportive than Cuisenaire rods would be fraction bars. These bars are pre-labeled and are broken into unit fractions. Your child can represent a variety of fractions by putting the bars together, can use the bars to add fractions with like denominators and can use the bars for fraction comparison and fraction equivalence. If another tool is not in your budget, you can print a set of fraction bars for free online, however, you will get a lot of use out of this tool so investing in a plastic set will serve you well!

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