Five hands-on maths ideas

Five Hands On Maths Ideas


Here are just five ideas for little hands to help them count, add up, subtract, divide and multiply.  I know there are some lovely tools like cuisenaire rods and other plastic stacking blocks for tens and units work, but these are just simple things you are likely to have some of around the house anyway. I’m not sure if I invented any of them.


1. Traditional abacus



I certainly didn’t invent this one.  You really can’t better a straightforward, traditional abacus.  They are even beautiful objects in their own right.  A bit bulky, but impossible to lose.  Good for number bonds to 10, addition and subtraction to 100, multiples of 2, 5 and 10, and so on.  Sliding those wooden beads across is very satisfying indeed.


2. Dried fava/pinto beans



I actually bought these beans to eat.  But either I cooked them wrong, or they just aren’t very nice. Or I cooked them wrong. Either way, they are earning their keep now.  They’re not as pretty to look at as the abacus, easier to lose, and a choking hazard for babies underfoot. But they’re more flexible and a better choice, I find, for those early maths facts (aka sums): 1 and 1, 1 and 2, 2 and 2 etc.  Also great for number bonds of any number, large or small.  You could start off with half each (eg for bonds of 10, take 5 beans each).  Point out how many that makes, eg You have 5 beans and I have 5 beans, which makes 10 beans altogether. So 5 and 5 makes 10. Then move one bean across, saying something like, If I give you one of my beans how many do you have now? That’s right, 6. And how many do I have now? That’s right, 4… 6 beans and 4 beans makes 10 beans, so 6 and 4 makes 10.  If you don’t find this kind of activity easy then Emerson E. White’s A Primary Arithmetic is brilliant, full of examples just like this, progressing steadily, and with lots of illustrations too.


3. Coloured pencils/crayons



We use this as a variation to the beans – they are usually all over the table anyway.  In the photo above our son was actually grouping them by colour, so I just came along and asked him to tell me how many were in each group, which group had the most, and which the fewest.  Then if he grouped the oranges and yellows together, or the blues and greens, how many did he have then?


4. Toy soldiers



I reckon I might have invented this one.  Considering how much storage space they take up, and how flipping annoying they are when they are littering the staircase, I thought it was time to get them working for me.  So this is pretty fun.  It’s good for subtraction and percentages.  I get the boys to draw up battle lines of specified numbers of troops.  We discuss which side has the upper hand, and the opposing side then loses a certain number.  It can take any course, but we are always reinforcing the subtraction facts, and often percentages too.  If one side started with 20 but lost 10 men in the first round there’s 10 left, so 10 and 10 makes 20, or double 10 is 20, or 10 is half of 20 etc.


5. Lego bricks



Or Duplo, or Megablocks – any size or brand.  If your kids already play with these you might find they already know some multiples.  In any case, you can take a look at the shapes of the bricks – see how many round nobbles there are in each direction. 1×2, 1×3, 1×4, 1×8, 2×2, 2×3, 2×4, 2×6…  You can ask questions like, How many 2×2 bricks do I need to make a brick the same size as the 2×4?… That’s right, two of them.  So let’s count the nobbles….4 and 4 makes 8.  I dare say you get the idea.

What’s been your most helpful tool in helping children with basic arithmetic?



  1. March 15, 2015    

    This is GREAT! We use all on these and a few others…crayons, stones and chocolate morsels 🙂 Thank you for sharing!

    • March 16, 2015    

      Hi Erin, thanks for your kind comment… Chocolate morsels sound good! 🙂

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