This paper is premised on the fact that math can be an important tool in helping people make sense of the world. Math offers a unique and particular lens, helping people to focus on a range of characteristics from shape and amount to the relationship between the general and the particular. To promote math as a tool for making sense, early childhood math instruction ought to teach it in a manner that helps children make sense of mathematical concepts.
Specifically, I argue here that manipulatives are often brought into the early childhood classroom to promote "hands-on" learning without facilitating making sense. Taking a mixed-methods approach, I move between philosophical analysis to qualitative research to illustrate specific criteria promoting making sense in math education. Building primarily on the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, I first define what I mean by "making sense." John Dewey's writing about math education and experience provides a framework for making sense with manipulatives. I then focus on how pre-service teachers can teach math to young children in a manner that makes sense. I also share how I changed my instruction using criteria established by early childhood math educators Angela Giglio Andrews and Paul R. Trafton. I conclude by arguing that a math education that makes sense is both a democratic right and necessity.