Make Math Fun (and Tasty!) With Vegan Food Manipulatives

Turning math into a hands-on learning experience by using objects (aka “manipulatives”) as teaching tools is a fantastic way to make the subject fun, accessible, and real for young learners. It’s an immensely helpful practice for students who are tactile or visual learners and can help those at all levels grasp mathematical concepts more effectively and become familiar with new material. While there are plenty of blocks, cubes, puzzles, rods, and other objects that can be purchased to use as math manipulatives, one of the most economical and fun options is food. Small snack foods can be easily incorporated into an engaging lesson—and naturally, as a kind teacher, you can choose vegan manipulatives that will show kids that these foods are tasty and don’t contribute to animal suffering.

Food manipulatives are perfect for teaching counting, estimating, fractions, graphing, perimeters, and sorting, as well as addition and even multiplication and division. The possibilities are endless! Get inspired and have fun with manipulatives the animal-friendly way by creatively using vegan foods and the following activity ideas in your next math lesson.

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Get Mathematical With Cereal

  • A bowl of cereal is a great way to start the morning—and it’s also a great way to start your math lesson. Use Cascadian Farm Organic Fruitful O’s to show your work for addition or subtraction problems. Accompany the cereal with a worksheet that kids can use as a “board” for arranging their pieces. And while Fruitful O’s are a fun, colorful choice for this activity, any vegan cereal would work well.

  • You can also use cereal to teach factoring, as in the example below. While some popular brands unfortunately include a type of vitamin D3 that’s derived from lanolin (from sheep’s wool), there are some that are free of animal-derived ingredients—such as 365 Organic Morning O’s, which are perfectly suited to the activity below.

Cereal is familiar and easy for little hands to manipulate, making it a fantastic choice for math activities. The round shape of Cascadian Farm Organic Fruitful O’s and 365 Organic Morning O’s also allows them to be strung on yarn or string as an alternative way to show math concepts. Square vegan cereals, such as the classic Quaker Life Cinnamon or Cascadian Farm Organic Graham Crunch are also tasty and easy for kids to handle, and they can be used to show perimeters and build rectangular shapes.

Fruity Fractions and Fun

  • Math is everywhere around us—including in nature’s perfect food, fruits! Teach a highly visual (and nutritious) lesson on fractions by using apples and the free printable in the Pin below. Or you could adapt a similar activity using oranges or easy-to-peel tangerines, which are naturally sectioned for kid-friendly handling.

  • And what kids don’t love capping their fingertips with olives—or anything else that they can fit their fingers into, for that matter? Grab some finger-topping fruits, such as canned olives or fresh raspberries, and have students solve problems by using them to determine percentages of 100, with each finger representing 10 percent.
  • Grapes are also great to use as manipulatives, given their size and the fact that you can buy a lot of them at once, but they’re also great to use for building 3-D shapes with toothpicks. Many depictions of this type of activity use marshmallows, which contain gelatin (although you could easily purchase vegan marshmallows instead), but grapes work just as well and are a much healthier alternative.

Counting on Candy

  • Who says that math can’t be sweet? DOTS are sturdy and cute little candies that are perfect to use as manipulatives (as long as you can keep the students from eating them all before the lesson is over). They’re also useful because each box is full of a variety of hues, so you can incorporate lessons about color and sorting into your chosen activity.

  • Skittles also offer the benefit of many different colors in each pack and are a popular manipulative used in many online activities available to teachers. Check out this great one on counting, sorting, and graphing.

  • And for the very youngest learners, this activity on patterns using Skittles is a perfect choice.

  • Dum Dums lollipops and Styrofoam or floral foam blocks are the perfect combination when it comes to fun addition or subtraction manipulatives. Have students add or subtract Dum Dums from the foam, and jazz things up by putting the block or sphere inside a flower pot. It will look great in your classroom when not in use, too.

  • Creating a printable “counting board” or “math mat” is a great way to incorporate math skills using colorful candies. Check out this example using Sour Patch Kids—a favorite among vegan candies.

Other colorful vegan candy manipulatives could include Jujyfruits, Smarties, and Swedish Fish (some Swedish Fish contain beeswax, so be sure to check the label.) If you want to opt for something healthier but still fun and colorful, go with fruit snacks—Annie’s Berry Patch Organic Bunny Fruit Snacks and Mott’s Medleys Assorted Fruit Flavored Snacks are both great and easy-to-find choices. And of course, if you’re looking for something chocolatey to replace M&M’s (which contain dairy “products”) in a math activity, opt for comparable vegan treats such as No Whey! Foods’ Choco No No’s or UnReal’s Dark Chocolate Crispy Quinoa Gems.

Mathtastic Snacktivities

  • Chances are that by the afternoon, you’re sneaking into your bag to grab a handful of one of these snacks anyway—so you may as well use it in a math activity. Wheat Thins are great square-shaped snacks to use for teaching lessons about perimeter. If you’d like, you can even outline the perimeter of each shape using Twizzlers (which are vegan) for emphasis, as in the example below. Alternatively, you could use Earth Balance Vegan Cheddar Flavor Squares instead of Wheat Thins to mix things up!

  • Pretzels are useful because they come in different shapes—you can easily find them in nuggets, rings, sticks, and twists. Using them in regrouping activities is super-helpful for addition and subtraction problems—different shapes can represent the ones, tens, and hundreds columns. You can also use pretzel sticks to make a tally. And as you can see in the interesting STEM activity below, they can be used in all sorts of creative ways in math lessons.

  • Popcorn is an easy, economical, and fun math manipulative. Check out this worksheet freebie on addition that features the snack (use the real thing to make the lessons even more exciting), or design your own creative popcorn-themed manipulative.

  • Chex Mix is great for activities that involve sorting or symbols, as it comes with a variety of ingredients that represent different shapes. Traditional Chex Mix is vegan, so go with that option. It can be used as a manipulative for regrouping during addition or subtraction problems or for place holding.

More Fun With Vegan Manipulatives

With the wide variety of vegan manipulatives available, you can easily customize your snacktivity to something else that you’re working on. Are you reading If You Give a Mouse a Cookie? If so, bring in some dairy-free chocolate chips as a manipulative for that day’s math lesson. Is it springtime? Work with a vegan Easter-themed candy such as Galerie Candy Speckled Eggs or Jolly Rancher Jelly Beans. Are you doing a unit on wild animals? Bring in animal crackers and work with those. Any small, easy-to-handle, not-super-messy vegan snack food can be an effective manipulative. And don’t forget that dried foods—such as pasta and beans—are also great and affordable manipulatives that will last (and won’t be gobbled up by students!). Be creative, and happy teaching!

Are you looking for fun and creative lesson plans, printables, inspiration for teachers, and more?

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 Ingrid E. Newkirk

“Almost all of us grew up eating meat, wearing leather, and going to circuses and zoos. We never considered the impact of these actions on the animals involved. For whatever reason, you are now asking the question: Why should animals have rights?” READ MORE

— Ingrid E. Newkirk, PETA President and co-author of Animalkind