By: Danielle | January 28, 2018

Pool noodles, tennis balls, jumbo dice, and plastic bowling pins. All of those things sound like fun additions to a children’s party, but they also make for really great educational manipulatives. However, when it comes to teaching music from a cart, transporting those types of objects on your cart for use in your lesson activities can be difficult due to their sizes and shapes. Does that mean you can’t incorporate manipulatives as part of your music lessons, centers, or workstations? Definitely not! Instead, you may just need to rethink the types of materials you utilize, depending on your storage availability and cart setup.

In my years of teaching music from a cart, along with figuring out how to maximize my cart storage space, I’ve also experimented with different kinds of materials and manipulatives I could easily carry around and incorporate in the often cramped classroom spaces I teach in. Along with the portability factor, I’ve found that materials that I could use for multiple purposes were you more bang for your lesson buck! Here’s a list of my current 5 favorite multifunctional lesson manipulatives:

Inflatable Beach Balls

Who doesn’t like the fun of an inflatable beach ball? It’s a great tool I like to use for echo games or to encourage solo singing. If you allow your students the rare opportunity to sit on top of their desks rather than sit on the floor or stand during the activity, they're sure to name you as the coolest teacher in your school! The beach ball’s smooth, wipeable surface is great for dry erase markers and when not in use, the air can be let out in order to store it flat for future use. Inflatable plastic globes are great, too, giving students a 3D visual of where in the world a certain folk song or instrument they're learning about comes from.

Fly Swatters

I began using fly swatters as concept reinforcement and assessment tools a few years ago and I love them! I love them so much that I purchased not only a few regular-sized ones, but also several jumbo-sized fly swatters.

A fun find at the dollar store! How could you resist buying such cool, gigantic swatters? :)

I printed, cut, and laminated insects on which I use a dry erase marker to write the concepts students are currently learning. This could be used for a myriad of concepts, such as rhythms, solfege, composers (their names, what country they’re from, titles of famous works they’ve written, etc.), dynamics, tempo markings, the possibilities are endless! Divide your class into groups and within those groups let 2 students at a time take turns quickly searching for the correct insect to swat after the question or concept is called out. Incorporate student ownership by making “calling cards” for each group so students lead the game. This is a great voice saver for you and a great substitute lesson plan, too! Another perk is that they’re flat and can be stored easily on a shelf or hung by the handle and you need only purchase a few for students to take turns in the group games, eliminating the need for lugging an entire class set of materials on your cart.

Looking for some insect picture cards to use for the fly swatter game?

Grab a free preview of this resource and more in the Cart Closet!

Plastic Sheet Protectors

Plastic sheet protectors (used in 3-ring binders) are great alternatives to dry erase lapboards. Not only are they far less expensive (just pennies per sheet!), but they’re also slimmer and lighter, making them much easier to store on your music cart. With its transparent writing surface, you can insert anything you’d like into the pocket (a blank sheet of paper, pre-printed staff paper, a worksheet) and it's instantly much more versatile compared to a standard, plain white lapboard! If you’re looking for something more durable than sheet protectors, you can purchase reusable dry erase pockets:

Reusable Dry Erase Pockets - Check your local dollar or discount store for the best prices!

I like how the dry erase pockets include a reinforced hole on one side which allows you to hang up the pocket for easy display, lending itself well for posting lesson objectives or “I can…” statements on your cart if your district requires that.


A very versatile stackable manipulative I like to use are plastic cups. Aside from the very popular cup rhythm activities, cups can be used to review music terms, rhythms, instrument families, and more! I began with disposable plastic party cups, but after seeing how easily and often they crack, I went to the dollar store and purchased a set of more solid, durable plastic cups. And just like the beach balls and sheet protectors mentioned previously, the smooth, shiny surface of plastic cups are perfect for writing on with dry erase markers. The particular cups I purchased have a small, viewable space towards the lip of the cup that can be seen even when stacked:

Mini Dust Pans

I saw these colorful mini dust pans in the dollar store and instantly thought they’d make for a great assessment tool:

Students race to sweep up small, labeled objects (something with a little depth, such as plastic cubes, color tiles, or even folded paper) based on what’s called out. For example, having students race to see who can sweep up only the string family instrument names scattered on the floor or all of the rhythms that add up to 4 beats. Students might not be crazy about cleaning up their room at home, but a music sweeping game is a whole other story! And, as with the fly swatters, you can purchase just a few dustpans and that’s plenty for your students to take turns with in small groups.

How about you? Do you have a particular music lesson manipulative that’s your favorite? Have you tried any of the ideas above? Are there any manipulatives you’ve found difficult to store on your cart due to their shape or size? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below!

Encouraging you to rock as you roll,

Category: Lessons 

Tags: Lesson Ideas 


Danielle | Music on a Cart

Posted on : January 30, 2020

So glad you found it helpful, Zach!

Zach VanderGraaff

Posted on : January 30, 2020

While I'm not quite on a cart anymore, I'm still really limited on space and storage. These ideas are awesome! Thanks for sharing!

Danielle | Music on a Cart

Posted on : February 02, 2018

If the dust pans weren't so cute, I probably wouldn't have come
up with the idea ;)

Elizabeth Caldwell

Posted on : February 02, 2018

I absolutely love these ideas! They're all great, but I have never
in my life thought to use dust pans. Genius!! :D

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