Heads or Tails: Using Coins as Manipulatives

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One of my five-year-old twins has an eagle-eye for coins, so much so that his nickname in this virtual world is Magpie, a bird (perhaps mistakenly) known for being drawn to shiny objects. Any time we go for a walk, even from the car into the grocery, my Magpie is on the hunt. One time he managed to find a coin on a dirt hiking path. How in the world did that even get there? His love for coins isn’t for their monetary value – at least at this point – but simply because they are shiny. He carries his newly found treasure in his pocket for days and frequently pulls it out to examine it. Finally, he is willing to add it to the others in his piggy bank. He often asks to go through his coins, and over the last couple years, we’ve done a number of activities using his coins as manipulatives. Here are some ideas that we’ve used and will use as he grows.

Besides the actual finding of coins, washing the coins has been one of Magpie’s favorite activities. We fill a small tub with warm water and add a mild dish detergent. (You could use a bowl or a pot as well.) Drop in the coins, and your child can then use an old toothbrush to scrub them one at a time. Don’t forget a towel to wipe up stray sloshes of water and to dry the now clean(er) coins. Note: We’ve found that some foreign coins are apt to rust if left damp, so you’ll want to make sure they are dry.

Once a year my parents give my boys the spare change they’ve collected. We’ve managed to have all sorts of fun sorting the coins. Here are some ideas:

  • Color of coin – The first thing they do is divide the coins into piles of silver coins and copper coins.
  • Denomination of coin – The boys take the pile of silver coins and divide them by denomination.
  • Same or different – The U.S. Treasury has added a bit of fun in recent years by changing the images on the coins. One of my boys in particular likes to divide the different versions of a specific coin into separate piles.
  • Fair share – My boys must divide their booty equally. Since they are still rather young, we divide each type of coin separately, adding to each boys’ pile an equal number of coins. Their baby brother gets the leftovers of coins that cannot be divided equally.

Sorting 2.0
For kids six and over, you may wish to try the following sorting activities:

  • Arrange a set of coins by year.
  • Arrange quarters with the states of the reverse in alphabetical order by state.

Stacking coins can improve a child’s fine motor skills. Quarters, being the largest of the common coin, will be easiest for younger fingers, but dimes can present a greater challenge. Have them stack the same type of coin or just a random sampling of coins. They can count how many pieces high they can make their coin castles.


School-age kids can use a pile of coins in a variety of ways to practice math skills

  • Greater than or less than – Make two piles of coins (fewer coins for younger kids) and have them figure which pile is worth more. Preschool children could simply count the number of coins to determine which pile has a greater number of coins.
  • Half a dozen of one… – Ask your child to come up with a particular number of coin configurations that equal the same amount of money. For instance: if your target is $.25, your child could use (1) a quarter, (2) two dimes and a nickel, (3) five nickels, (4) one dime, two nickels, five pennies, (5) 25 pennies, and so on.
  • Skip counting – Coins provide an excellent means for counting by fives or tens or even twenty-fives. Simply hand them some nickels (fives), dimes (tens), and quarters (twenty-fives) and have them count accordingly to figure out the total worth of the coins.
  • Here’s your change – In this activity, ask your child to find the fewest amount of coins needed to equal a specific amount. For example, your child would give you two dimes and two pennies for $.22.
  • Store – To delve deeply into using coins as manipulatives, you could create a store with your child. You could work together in pricing items, and then your child could “purchase” items with a purse full of coins. They would have to count how much money they have in order to know how much they can spend. If they wish to buy multiple items, they would have to think about how to prioritize their spending. Children can take turns being the buyer and being the checkout clerk, who would also have to add up the purchases and determine if the money given is enough to cover the items.

These are all ideas you can present to your child, but see what they come up with a bowl full of coins.

Note: Please use extra care when using coins with young children and in the presence of younger siblings.

“Using Coins as Manipulatives” is the first of a three-part series on coins. The second and third installments will offer even more ways for children to learn with coins.


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