Math toolboxes are a game changer in my classroom. Once I made commonly used math materials readily available to my students, they took charge of their own learning. It was amazing!
Using a math toolbox is a great way to teach your student independence and responsibility. And, they’re so easy to make! Here’s a peek at how I make and use math toolboxes in my classroom.
What Are Math Toolboxes?
A math toolbox is a small container filled with frequently used math manipulatives and reference materials for students to access. Math toolboxes can be made from small photo boxes, buckets, pencil boxes, or other containers.
Why Use Math Toolboxes?
As I mentioned above, math toolboxes are a great way to teach students to take responsibility of their own learning. This is because they have all the help they need right at their fingertips, so they can try to figure out problems for themselves first before asking for help.
Math toolboxes also cut down on time spent passing out materials during class. While you may not be able to put everything you need in the toolbox, many materials may be kept in the box already. This eliminates prep time for the teacher before class, since everything is already divided out amongst the students.
How To Use Math Toolboxes
Math toolboxes can be shared between small groups of students, or used by students individually. It depends on what works best for your classroom. I personally put one at each table for students to share.
Toolboxes should be stored somewhere students can easily access them. Whether this is a central location in your room, at each individual table/desk, or somewhere else is up to you. I kept one at each table inside their table caddies.
Whenever a student needs some additional help, they can turn to their toolbox for help. They will have to decide for themselves which tool to use. This teaches children how to problem solve, and decreases the amount of students asking the teacher for help. A win-win for everyone!
What to Include in a Math Toolbox
Only put what students will actually use in their toolbox. You may, however, choose to put in a reference guide for fractions even though you don’t learn fractions until later in the year. Just don’t put in a reference guide for fractions if you don’t actually ever work with fractions.
Your toolboxes may contain reference materials, manipulatives, or a mixture of both. Again, it depends on your class and what works best. I only did reference materials, but that’s mainly because there was no way I could fit all the manipulatives we use in too. If you use less manipulatives, you may be able to combine both. Or, just choose the manipulatives you use most often.
Some suggestions of reference materials you might include are:
- 120 chart
- Multiplication chart
- List of number words
- Ten frame
- Place value chart
- Number lines (including an open number line)
- Measurement conversions
- Fraction reference guide – picture, word, and number
- Fraction strips
- Shapes reference guide – picture, name, and attributes
- Coin guide – picture, name, and value
- Order of operations
Some manipulatives you might think about including are:
- Base 10 blocks
- Place value disks
- Pattern blocks
- Centimeter cubes/inch tiles
- DIY rekenrek
Of course, choose the materials that make the most sense for your grade level. You may also include things like highlighters, dry erase markers, pens, etc. if those are things you frequently use in your math instruction.
How To Store Your Materials
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You can use just about any container for your math toolboxes. The size of it will all depend on how you plan to use them – will you be storing all of your materials for the entire year, or just a little bit at a time? I’ve seen it done different ways, so it’s totally up to you! Here are some of my recommendations for storage options.
- Plastic photo boxes – This is what I used! They are the perfect size to store reference materials and just a few manipulatives. They make great individual toolboxes and are easy to store.
- Pencil boxes – A slightly larger option if you plan on putting in a lot of manipulatives. These would be great for students to use individually, or share with a small group.
- Craft boxes – A much larger option. This would be perfect for storing a year’s worth of materials and keeping them under tables or stacked somewhere else in the room. Because they are much larger, I would recommend using one per table group.
Keeping Materials Organized
With several different students/groups using different math toolboxes, it can be hard to make sure all materials stay organized and get put back in the right place.
One way to help with this problem would be to color code the items inside if possible. Each table would be assigned a color, and all the toolbox materials for that table match that color. For example, the toolbox label would be blue, the reference guides are all printed on blue paper, and any manipulatives are also blue. Of course, it may not be possible to perfectly color code everything, but it can still help.
Alternatively, you could label everything inside with a number on the back, corresponding to the table it belongs to. If students each have their own toolbox, you could label all materials with their name or initials.
Make Your Own Math Toolbox
I hope that this has been helpful to you in learning how to make and use math toolboxes. It does take some extra prep up front, but will save you so much time later on once you have trained students to use them.
If you are an elementary math teacher, I have a math toolbox set you might be interested in. It includes 26 reference materials that fit perfectly inside 4×6 or 5×7 photo boxes. References included are suitable for kindergarten through 6th grade – simply pick and choose the ones you wish to include!
You can check it out by clicking the picture below. All you have to do is print and cut!