graphing activity using two ice cube trays and counting bears in two columns along with associated questions.

Ice Cube Tray Math Activities: Greater Than and Graphing

Using fun manipulatives to introduce and teach greater than/less than and graphing math skills to students K-3.

Graphs are used to present information in a simple way and are used to easily compare information.

“Graphing is an important math tool. It is a simple way to introduce broader concepts of greater than/less than. Constructing and interpreting graphs, especially bar graphs, is important in grades preK-2 because it provides children with an opportunity to count and compare sets of objects – two big ideas in number and operations.” Francis Fennell, president of the National Council of Teaching Mathematics (NCTM)

Graphs support young students in understanding math concepts, such as sorting, organizing, counting, comparing, and analyzing.

Using manipulatives to initially create graphs is essential – especially for students who are blind or low vision. TVI Megan Correira shares her introduction to bar graph activities using ice cube trays and manipulatives to teach simple bar chart concepts to young students who are blind or low vision. Young students can also easily learn to create their own bar charts using ice cube trays and manipulatives! 


Note: The ice cube trays are used to organize and hold the manipulatives in a column. The ice cube trays should be positioned vertically, so that there are two columns. If more trays are needed (for larger numbers or more columns), use the tape to connect the trays.

Activity 1: Counting

Use one ice cube tray, positioned vertically. Place the desired number of manipulatives in one column, one manipulative per square. Starting from the bottom, ask the student to count the number of manipulatives. 

 Activity 2: More (Greater Than or Less Than)

Use one ice cube tray, positioned vertically. Place the desired number of manipulatives in each column, one manipulative per square. Example: Compare 3 and 7. Starting from the bottom, place 3 manipulatives in the first column and 7 manipulatives in the second column of the ice cube tray. 

Note: Some students may initially do best if different manipulatives are used in column one and column two.

Starting at the bottom of the first column, ask the student to feel and count the number of bears in the first column. (3 bears) Now count the number of circles in the second column. (7 circles) Which is more?

Students can use both hands and compare the bears and circles at the same time. Starting from the bottom, the left hand finds the first bear (located in the first column), while the right hand finds the first circle (located in the second column). Move both hands up to the second bear and circle. Move both hands up to the third bear and the third circle, then to the fourth square (no bear) which is empty. The student should determine that there are more circles than bears.

Pink ice cube tray with 3 bears in the first column and 7 circles in the second column.

Activity 3: How Many More?

 For the question, “How many more?” repeat the process described in Activity 2. When the student finds the fourth square without a bear, the student is prompted, “When one ends, count on!” to count the remaining circles to determine how many more circles than bears.

Activity 4: Intro to Graphing

The classroom math teacher frequently takes class polls. She uses tally marks on the board to keep track of the poll results and students create their own bar graphs. In this example, the classroom teacher polled the class about their favorite food. The poll result: Cake (2), cookies (7) or brownies (4). In this example, three ice cube trays are used – the first column of each tray is used for each of the food categories. There is a print/braille labeled taped on to the bottom of each ice cube tray: Cake, Cookies and Brownies.

3 ice cube trays taped together with 2 bears in the cake column, 7 bears in the cookies, and 4 bears in the brownie column.

If the poll answers are more than 7 or 8, then additional trays can be taped above the trays to accommodate larger numbers. (Note: the ice cube trays in the pictures are 2×8.) In another favorite food poll 4 ice cube trays are used: two ice cube trays were taped together side-by-side and two additional ice cube trays are taped above, forming 4×14 vertical grid. Braille labels are added below the ice cube trays, labeling, “cake” (with 6 bears), and “cookies” (with 11 bears). Initially, the teacher will set up the graph with the correct manipulatives. As the student progresses, the student can create his/her own graphs, adding the labels and counting out the manipulatives in each column.

2 ice cube trays taped side-by-side with 2 trays above. 6 Bears in the cake column and 11 bears in the cookies column.

Sample Questions for Intro to Graphing

Remember, students need opportunities to independently set up/create their own bar graphs when given the data! This is a critical skill should be initially introduced using manipulatives. Creating bar graphs with ice cube trays is an excellent opportunity for your student to begin creating his/her own bar graphs. Creating and using bar graphs is a skill that begins in kindergarten. It is also important to note that these simple bar graphs are used to teach critical number sense, such as greater than, less than or equals. Students are also practicing 1:1 counting, the concept of columns, and building memory skills. While it might be challenging to keep up with sighted peers in kindergarten and first grade math classes, it is important to spend the time to teach these foundational math concepts. if your student is not exposed to these concepts early, he/she will be behind the class in second and third grade, when his/her peers are building on these foundational math concepts.

Next Steps

Once the student understands how to create and read a bar graph using manipulatives, move to using and creating bar charts using tactile graph paper and stickers.



By Diane Brauner

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