Five Ways to Use Virtual Manipulatives to Build Understanding

Watching my children and students work with manipulatives, I can see how hands-on experiences with math concepts help build a solid foundation for future learning. Often, teachers and students struggle with the transition from concrete manipulatives to a representation of the concept. Web- or app-based “virtual” manipulatives help to make this transition easier, although many teachers struggle to find a place for these tools in the classroom.

Hands-on manipulatives are an excellent tool on their own, and they are even more powerful when coupled with virtual manipulatives. To support the use of these virtual tools, Didax has developed more than a dozen free virtual resources, available on our website. If you need some help getting started, read on for some ideas!

A Teacher Demonstration Tool

When students are working with hands-on models, virtual manipulatives are a powerful resource for the teacher to demonstrate how to use the tools. Displaying the virtual model for the class to see is a simple way to begin. For example, a teacher might use the virtual ten-frames to model a number or an addition fact, while the students follow along with their own physical ten frames and counters.

Help Students Explain their Thinking

Using an interactive whiteboard, students can share their strategies during a whole-class discussion. This helps students make the leap from the concrete model to a clear visual representation of the problem. As students manipulate the tools on the interactive whiteboard, they reinforce what they did with their own hands-on manipulatives while solving the problem. For example, students could use the Unifix cubes tool to model exactly what they did with their own cubes while solving an addition, place value, or comparison problem.

Build a Virtual Center

Increasingly, students are working in computer or tablet based centers. A virtual manipulatives center provides students with practice on the concepts they have been learning with hands-on manipulatives. Appropriate center activities facilitate the transition to an efficient representation of the hands-on model, and ultimately to fluency with the abstract symbols of mathematics. For example, students who have been working with place value disks can practice this concept with the virtual tool in a center and then model the problems with symbols (digits) to build their understanding of standard and expanded form.

Practice Using Virtual Tools

Many state and local assessments are administered online, and some students struggle as they try to understand how to use the available online tools. Virtual manipulatives give students practice using online math tools before they sit down for the test. Although the tools may not function in exactly the same way, exposure to virtual, online tools like number lines and geoboards can make students more comfortable when they encounter them on an assessment.

Take the Manipulatives Home

Teachers often wish that students had a set of manipulatives at home to help them when they were doing homework. In most cases, this is cost-prohibitive and impractical. Virtual manipulatives make it possible for students to take the tools home at the end of the day with no risk of lost or damaged pieces. After practicing the concepts in the classroom with hands-on manipulatives, students use the virtual tools as a backup when doing homework (or explaining the concepts to their parents).


Virtual manipulatives help students transition from the rich, hands-on experiences they have in class to clear representations of the concepts using a consistent visual model. If you have other ways that you’re using virtual manipulatives in your classroom, I’d love to hear your ideas.

View Virtual Manipulatives