Making Math Visual & Hands On & Why It Matters

Learn how to make math visual to enhance and deepen student understanding (hint: it’s about more than drawing pictures!) Plus, learn the science behind why this matters and ways to make the math topics you teach and explore more visual for your students.

Why Does Math Need to Be Visual?

Recent brain research has been able to show us what activity goes on in the brain when we solve a math problem. The results are amazing! 5 different processors “light up” with activity and talk to each other when we work on math and play with numbers.

Of those 5, 2 are visual processors.

That means we need to provide visuals to aid our brain in making sense of the problem, connecting it to other parts of the brain and to move it from our short term memory to our long term memory!

So even for those kids (and adults) who don’t consider themselves to be “visual learners,” we now know that’s just not true. Everyone needs visual tools to understand math deeply. Some might just have stronger visual processors than others.

Those who think they’re not “visual learners” need visual models and tools even more to strengthen those weaker parts of the brain.

What Does it Mean to Make Math Visual?

So making math visual is about so much more than drawing a picture to solve a word problem. Making math visual means giving our brains something to “hold on to” as we make sense of new concepts, think through word problems, visualize fractions and all the other math we want our kids to learn.

Making math visual means our brain is able to form connections between visual representations and more abstract representations or computations.

This might mean drawing a picture for a word problem.

It might mean using hands on manipulatives to represent the situation and help kids to “see” it.

But more often than not, it simple means using a visual math tool to represent the situation or a diagram to show our brains the information in a different format.

Visual or Hands On Math Representations Might Include:

  • Pictures
  • Base ten blocks
  • Number bonds
  • Number lines & open number lines
  • Tables, charts or graphs
  • Hundreds charts
  • Area models or grids
  • Bar models
  • Arrays of objects
  • Coins
  • Fraction bars

Or any other visual your kids come up with to show their thinking about a particular math problem.

Ideas for Making Math Instruction Visual & Hands On:

One of the easiest way to encourage your kids to visualize the math they’re learning and exploring is to use a graphic organizer. Although you could probably find various graphic organizers around the web, this can be as easy as folding a piece of paper into fourths.

Then give your students a math problem (computation or word problem) and ask them to solve it 4 different ways.

You might require things like solve it with the algorithm, solve it using place value, solve it on a number line, solve it with a number bond, solve it by drawing a picture, etc.

One especially helpful tip for getting kids to think deeply and visualize a problem is to make one of the boxes “Write a story problem to match the problem,” when you give them a computation problem.

For example, if the given problem is 24 – 8, a student might solve by drawing a picture, using an open number line, with the regrouping algorithm and finally by writing a story problem such as, “I have 24 crayons. 8 are broken. How many are not broken?”

This allows them to think about, explore and visualize subtraction in a variety of ways, and sometimes discover meaningful strategies for solving that they had not been familiar with (or comfortable using) previously.

You might also like these posts with ideas for hands on math instruction:

Find More Visual Math Games & Hands On Resources for Your Classroom:

If you’re looking for quick and easy and done for you visual or hands on math activities, games and math tasks, check out the ever-growing list of resources below.

Simply click on the different graphics to learn more about each activity and grab the FREE download that you can use right away!

{FREE} 100th Day Color by Addition | Add Within 10 Practice

100th Day of School STEM Activities for K-6 {FREE!}

January 2018 Math Problem of the Day Calendars

“2×2=BOO!” Hands-On Multiplication Fun!

3-D Shapes Worksheets! {FREE Printables!}

{FREE} 3-Digit Addition Challenges | Grades 3-5

3D Shapes Teaching Resources!

How to Use Doodle Notes to Explore Absolute Value

What’s For Lunch? An Engaging, Real Life Math Lesson {FREE}

Adding & Subtracting Decimals Partner Challenge {FREE!}

Add & Subtract Fractions Cut & Paste Activity {FREE}

Hands On Adding Fractions Game for Kids

Number Sentence Roll and Write {FREE!}

Number Detectives: Addition and Subtraction Challenge Problems

Equation Search: Addition and Subtraction Practice

Algebra Essentials Resource Bundle

All About Constellations {Easy Craft and Science Lesson}!

{FREE} All About Pumpkins: Interactive Folder for Kids

Analyzing Data Worksheet for Middle and High School

{FREE} All About Angles Worksheets: Classify & Measure Angles

Apple Addition with Ten Frames – Decompose Numbers {FREE}

20+ Apple Math Games, Activities & STEM for Kids

Apple STEM Challenge {Simple STEM for Kids}

Apple Ten Frame Games for Kindergarten {FREE}

Apple Tree About Me! {A Back to School Math Activity}

April Math Problem of the Day Calendar {FREE}

Hands On Area and Perimeter Game {FREE Printable}

Hands-On Area of a Circle Activity {FREE}

August Math Problem of the Day Calendar

5 Benefits of Family Math Projects

15+ of the BEST Fall STEM Activities: Easy + Fun!

Valentine’s Day STEM: Build a Tower with Conversation Hearts

“Build a Turkey” Number Sense Activity {FREE Printable}

Building the Numbers 11-20 {Free Printables!}

{FREE} Candy Bar Fractions: Hands On Fraction Practice

{FREE} Candy Corn Counting: Printable Math Mats

Candy Corn Math: Hands On Activities {With FREE Printables}

30+ Amazing Candy Math Activities for Kids

{FREE!} Christmas Addition Practice – 1st Grade

Christmas Addition and Subtraction Maze Challenges {FREE}

Christmas Count and Color Pages {FREE}

Christmas Themed Elapsed Time Practice {FREE}

Christmas “Color a Fraction” Pages {FREE}

{FREE!} Christmas Math Activities for Preschool | Low-Prep

Christmas Shopping: Money Math Practice {FREE}

Compare Decimals Cut & Paste Sort {FREE!}

{FREE} Comparing Fractions Cut & Paste Practice with Visual Models

Onion Prints: Concentric Circle Math Art Project

{FREE} Circus Themed Conversion Worksheets

{FREE} Convert Improper Fractions to Mixed Numbers Using Visuals

Christmas Multiplication Challenge {FREE}

Simple, Hands On Coordinate Graphing Worksheet

Cut and Paste Logic Puzzles for Preschoolers

Fall Favorites: Simple Data Analysis for Kids {FREE}

December Problem of the Day Calendars {FREE}

Low Prep Decimal Operations Mazes for Grades 4-6

Decimals on a Number Line Game that Kids LOVE!

Decorate a Christmas Tree! {Number Sense Activity}

{FREE} Digital Pi Day Activity: Decimal Operations Word Problems

Disney Math! {Countdown to Disney World!}

Disney Math: Frozen Fractal Snowflake {FREE Printable}

Disney Math: Recognizing Numbers with Cars!

Simple and Fun Division BINGO Game: Answers as Fractions

Simple, Interactive Division Vocabulary Booklet {FREE}

Earth Day Color a Fraction Pack! {FREE}

{FREE} Earth Day Geoboard Activity – Grades K-2

Easy Christmas Tree Symmetry Craft!

8 Engaging Early Algebra Lessons (FREE)

Equal or Not Equal? THAT is the Question!

Equivalent Expressions Activity {FREE}

Valentine’s Day Color by Code: Equivalent Fractions & Decimals

Adorable Equivalent Fractions Robot Puzzles {FREE}

Place Value Puzzles to Understand Large Numbers {FREE!}

Exploring Math and Science in Your Own Backyard

Math Art: Learning about Circles with Bubble Prints

Exploring Numbers With Magazine Cutouts

Exploring Patterns in Pascal’s Triangle {FREE Printables!}

Exploring Surface Area: Hands-On Lesson!

Exploring Surface Area of Pyramids and Cones!

Exploring Triangles with “The Greedy Triangle!”

Exploring Volume: FREE Lesson!

{FREE} Factoring Polynomials Practice: Cut & Paste Pages

{FREE} Easy Popcorn Factoring Practice Activity

Fairy Tale STEM: Literature Based Math and Engineering

{FREE} Fall Roll & Count Games for Kids

Fall Multiplication Games | Low-prep and FREE

Fidget Spinner Math Activity: Probability & Graphing

How Much Does a Pumpkin Cost? {FREE Algebra Lesson!}

Symmetry: Finish the Picture Pages {Drawing Mirror Images}

Fraction of a Whole Number Visual Worksheets {FREE}

Deepening Fraction Sense with Fractions Area Models

{FREE} Candy Corn Number Puzzles!

{FREE} Gumball Estimation Activity!

{FREE} System of Equations Logic Puzzles!

FREE Online Math Manipulatives for At Home Learning

FREE “Sir Cumference and All the King’s Tens” Activities!

{FREE} Sixteen Runaway Pumpkins Board Game!

Creating Patterns With Skittles {FREE Printable!}

From Caterpillar to Butterfly: Our Plans for the Week {And FREE Math Worksheets!}

Fun Fall Addition and Subtraction Puzzles {FREE}

Fun Multiplication Worksheets that Build Conceptual Understanding

Engaging Summer Math: Easy, Hands On & FUN Ideas

Geoboard Activity Cards {FREE Geometry Challenge}

{FREE} Gingerbread Counting Game | Grades PreK-1st

Graphing Linear Equations: Cut & Paste Worksheets {FREE}

Hands on Logic Puzzles for Kids!

The Beginner’s Guide to Hands-On Math

Pass the Pi: A Hands On Pi Day Investigation

Happy Pi Day!! 3.14.15

Hot Chocolate Math Investigation: Estimation and Measurement!

How to Add Decimals: Simple Strategies & Tips

Simple Ideas for Introducing & Exploring Functions in Middle School

Height of a Building: Indirect Measurement Lesson | Grades 7-8

Teaching Integer Multiplication {FREE Graphing Calculator Activity}

Make Math Engaging with Interactive Math Notebooks & Math Crafts

Understanding the Angles in Triangles

Investigating Exponent Properties {FREE Lesson!}

{FREE} January 2019 Math Problem of the Day Calendars

FREE January 2020 Problem of the Day Calendars

January 2024 Problem of the Day Calendars {FREE}

July Math Problem of the Day Calendar

June Math Problem of the Day Calendar

{FREE} Kindergarten Math Worksheets | Multiple Skills | Animal Theme

Learning About 3D Shapes with Atmosflare 3D Pen

Making Math Relevant: Learning Math Through Jewelry Making

Learning Multiplication with Arrays

How to Teach Addition & Subtraction with LEGO Bricks

LEGO Duplo Math Puzzles {FREE Printables}

How to Teach Multiplication & Division with LEGO Bricks

{FREE} Lemonade Stand Word Problems for Grades 2-4

Leprechaun Tricks: Integer Challenges {FREE}

Pi Day Sing Along {FREE Printable!}

Let’s Get Cooking! {Math Fun in the Kitchen}

Linear Equations Puzzles: Free Practice Set

Making Absolute Value Clear (With FREE Printables!)

Mango Math Product Review {First Grade}

March Math Problem of the Day Calendar

Math Curse Extension Activities! {FREE!}

Math Twister! {A Fun Indoor Math Game!}

May Math Problem of the Day Calendar

Measuring Dinosaurs: Engaging Measuring Activity for Kids!

Math+Art: Exploring Symmetry

{FREE} Mental Math Challenge for Kids: Exercise Your Brain!

{FREE} Middle School Back to School Math Challenge

Midpoint Formula Activity {FREE Hands-On Lesson}

Missing Addend with Fractions: Challenges for Google Slides {FREE}

Silver Dollar Diner: FREE Money Math Pack

{FREE} Cupcake Shop: Money Math Problems

{FREE} Multi-Digit Multiplication Worksheets for Fall

Number Sentence Roll and Write: Multiplication and Division

Multiplication Coloring Pages: Easy Practice for Kids {FREE}

Low-Prep Multiplication Facts Practice: FREE Clip Cards

{FREE} Multiplication Facts Worksheets for Kids

{FREE} Multiplication Equation Search: Unique Challenge for Kids

{FREE} Multiply by Multiples of 10 Grid Challenges

{FREE} Multiply Decimals with Grids: Cut & Paste Set

{FREE} Multiply & Divide by Powers of Ten Game: Includes Exponents

Multiplying Large Numbers with a Table: Building Number Sense

Mummy Math: Halloween Estimation and Measurement!

Top 5 Essential Math Manipulatives

November Math Problem of the Day Calendar {FREE}

Number Bond Rainbows

Number Bonds with Apple Slices {FREE Printables!}

October Problem of the Day Calendar {FREE}

Which Number Doesn’t Belong? Math Challenge

Order of Operations Games

Pattern Block Puzzles {FREE}

Simple Pi Day Art Project {Free Printable!}

Race to Pi: Simple and Fun Pi Day Card Game

Pi-lentines: Sweet Pi Day Craft for All Ages

{FREE} Pi Day Logic Puzzles | Grades 4+

{FREE} Low Prep Place Value Mazes for Grades 3-5

Here’s a Quick and Fun Way to Practice Math Facts

Pre-K Math Activities: HUGE Resource List

Prime and Composite Numbers Worksheets: {FREE} Activity Pack

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Fun Probability Experiment with Dice {FREE}

Simple Coloring Probability Worksheets for Grades 4-6 {FREE}

{FREE} Properties of Multiplication Cut & Paste Practice

Pumpkin Number Bonds to Ten Cut and Paste {FREE}

Pumpkin Pie Counting Cards | Printable + DIGITAL

Hands On Pumpkin Seed Math with a Number Bond {FREE}

Pythagorean Theorem Lego Proof

Real World Pythagorean Theorem Practice {FREE}

Math on a Budget: Learning with Q-Tips!

Quadratic Equations Project (with FREE printables!)

Roll and Write: Number Practice Pages {FREE}

September Problem of the Day Calendar

“Sir Cumference and the Great Knight of Angleland” {FREE Printable Pack!}

20+ Unique Skip Counting Activities Kids Will Adore

Skip Counting Hopscotch

Skittles Count and Compare! {FREE Printable Pack}

Skittles Math: Count and Graph! {FREE Printables!}

{FREE} Skittles Math: Place Value Mats

Fall Leaves Sort: Slope Activity {FREE}

Snow Day Math: Addition in the Snow

“Build a Snowman” Place Value Activity {FREE!}

Spring Themed Logic Puzzles {FREE!}

St. Patrick’s Day Addition Practice – Grades 1-2

St. Patrick’s Day Counting: Hands On Games {FREE}

St. Patrick’s Day Make Ten Mats {FREE}

St. Patrick’s Day Math Pack {K-1}

{FREE} St. Patrick’s Day Multiplication – Grade 3

{FREE} St. Patrick’s Day Triangle Game | Grades 4-6

Plan Engaging STEM Lessons: STEM Lesson Plan Template {FREE}

Subtracting Mixed Numbers Printable Board Game {FREE}

Summer Algebra Review: Solve Equations Practice

Summer Counting Mats: Play Dough Math

Summer Counting Worksheets: Cut & Paste Pages

{Free} Summer Math Calendars for Grades K-5

Summer Math Camp: All About Money!

Summer Math Camp: Week 1

Summer Math Camp: Multiplication!

Summer Math Camp Week 3: Fractions!

Summer Math Camp Week 5: Time and Elapsed Time

Summer Math Camp Week 6: Measurement!

Summer Math Practice for 3rd-4th Grade

Awesome Summer STEM Activities for Middle School

Symmetry for Kids: 20+ Ideas & Resources

Graphing Systems of Equations Activity {FREE}

Christmas Algebra Riddles: Systems of Linear Equations {FREE}

Taking Math Outside: Even and Odd Number Beanbag Toss

Taking Math Outside: Number Line Race

{FREE} Taco Time: Tally and Bar Graph Practice

How to Teach Subtraction with Regrouping: Simple Strategy

How to Introduce and Teach Unit Rate: Practical Tips

Tips for Teaching Math with Sir Cumference

Coding Basics: Teaching Programming to Kids in a Fun Way

Telling Time with The Grouchy Ladybug! {FREE!}

Thanksgiving Math for Kindergarten {FREE Printables}

{FREE} Problem Solving Challenges based on “The Grapes of Math”

The Lion’s Share: Lessons and Printables!
These fun and low prep learning activities are a great way to extend the learning with the book, "The Warlord's Beads." Teach kids about place value and large numbers and ancient China with this cute math storybook.
The Warlord’s Beads Extension Lessons {FREE Printable}

Time For Spring! {FREE Telling Time Practice Worksheets!}

Top Math Resources of 2015!

Ultimate Collection of Pumpkin Math Ideas for K-12

Understanding Data: FREE Mean Median & Mode Lesson

Understanding the Distributive Property {FREE Lesson!}

Want a Unique Tangram Game to Challenge Your Kids?

Using Simple Home Projects to Teach Kids Math | Real World Math

Disney Math: Using Pattern Blocks to Create Cinderella’s Castle!

Valentine’s Day Logic Puzzles for Kids {FREE}

{FREE} Valentine’s Day Math Puzzles for Kids

Valentine’s Day Number Sense Challenge: Open Ended Math

Virtual Math Scavenger Hunt: Learn About Math in Nature

2021 Virtual Pi Day Celebration Hosted by MoMath

“We’re Going on a Leaf Hunt!” Fall Exploration Activity

Simple Winter Addition and Subtraction Facts to 10 {FREE}

{FREE} Winter Solve & Color: Addition to 20 Practice

Winter Count to 10 Booklet {FREE!}

{FREE} Editable Word Problem Templates: Help Kids Make Sense of Word Problems

Wrecking Ball Subtraction: Hands On Math