Common Sense Review
Updated January 2016

Number Pieces Basic, by the Math Learning Center

Virtual, limited base-ten blocks work best for younger math students
Common Sense Rating 3
  • The minimalist look makes controls easy to understand.
  • Tap blocks to add them to the whiteboard.
  • Drag a path around groups of blocks to select them all at once.
  • Blocks (usually) snap together in sensible places for easy organization.
  • Add equations using the built-in math editor.
  • Annotation tools let you write all over your block patterns.
  • There's no 1,000 block, but you can make your own with clever use of the duplicate tool.
  • Split blocks apart with the breakup tool, but be careful -- too many blocks will make your tablet run very slowly.
  • A nice tutorial explains all the features clearly.
  • You can zoom out but still only move blocks around on a very small region of the screen.
Base-ten blocks are a fantastic learning tool, and this version takes up far less space in your cupboard than the wooden sets.
Controls don't always work well, equation entry has a character limit, and the visual style isn't terribly engaging.
Bottom Line
Every teacher should have a set of base-ten blocks, and this is a workable but limited substitute when compared to the real deal.
Galen McQuillen
Common Sense Reviewer
Common Sense Rating 3
Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return? 2

Base-ten blocks are a blast for preschoolers and elementary schoolers, owing much to the tactile sensation of stacking and grouping them. In virtual form, they're far less exciting, especially in this extremely minimalist style.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer? 3

There's a good reason base-ten blocks endure: They work. There are no fixed outcomes, required levels, or games here, just plenty of great open-ended number play and full compatibility with every excellent lesson created for these tools.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students? 4

There aren't tons of features here, but they're all well-explained on a help screen. For lesson plans and classroom uses, there's a link to the developer's own curriculum (much of which is paid content).

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How Can Teachers Use It?

It's possible to use Number Pieces Basic in any situation where you'd use traditional physical base-ten blocks, so long as you don't need the beastly 1,000 cube (which is awesome but not included here). It's great for young learners just getting the basics of the decimal system and useful for all arithmetic operations. You can also pull it out again in algebra and geometry to make connections between abstract processes and concrete relationships already mastered. 

It's probably not a great idea to replace your physical blocks with Number Pieces Basic or to hold off on buying a set just because this is free. It's critical that kids associate a particular weight, feeling, and emotional attachment to numbers, and that doesn't happen with a fingertip on a piece of glass the same way it does with a tiny cube that handily weighs exactly one gram. Number Pieces Basic is a tough sell as a permanent substitute.

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What's It Like?

Number Pieces Basic is a virtual set of base-ten blocks with some extra handy tools for annotation. Users can tap units, tens, or hundreds blocks to add them to the whiteboard, change their color from yellow to red to green, rotate them, and join them or break them apart. Groups of blocks can be selected all at once by dragging a finger around them, allowing easy editing or deleting of the whole cluster. Blocks helpfully snap together at the edges, or they can be arranged free-form. 

A hand-drawing pen tool and equation editor give the app some extra oomph over its physical rivals. Users can draw all over the blocks to make notes, circle groups, or write numbers; the equation editor adds crisp, easy-to-read math figures to the field, formalizing systems and relationships. It's a totally open-ended tool, made for use with an existing curriculum. Compared to the full version, Number Pieces, this one only lacks ruler tools, and blocks are pre-colored. 

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Is It Good For Learning?

Physical manipulation of objects to discover numerical properties is critical for developing early math skills, so base-ten blocks have long been included in the early childhood toolkit. To that end, Number Pieces Basic is fantastic for learning. There's still no consensus as to whether virtual versions are quite as effective as physical tools, but a kid who learns with this app is likely to grasp number concepts more than a child who learns with no manipulatives at all. Sticky controls could stand in the way of reaching learning goals here, so be aware of that potential pitfall.

There's no doubt that the convenience factor is a big plus for Number Pieces Basic. Rather than dragging a bin of blocks, a roll of butcher paper, and a stack of markers around, this app lets teachers have everything they need on their tablet. This kind of at-your-fingertips availability opens up plenty of learning opportunities, and that's a big win. 

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See how teachers are using Number Pieces Basic, by the Math Learning Center