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A Modern Twist on the Ancient Abacus

Using an abacus for calculating numbers predates our modern system of writing numbers on paper or other materials. Its origin can be traced back to the very early civilizations of Persia, China, and Egypt. This simple device can be used to help everyone, especially children, understand our “base 10” method of processing numbers.

An abacus helps young children understand “10” by using rows of 10 beads that children can move to count, add, and subtract. By understanding multiples of 10, a child can better mentally organize addition and subtraction.

Here’s a simple and fun way to put a modern twist on an ancient counting tool. Young children today love to make and wear bracelets. You can help your child combine this popular craft with a simple math tool. This is something I have done with students in my 1st grade classroom as part of our math program.

Here’s what you and your child will need:

  • A pipe cleaner
  • 10 small, uniform-sized beads, 5 each of two different colors


  • Cut the pipe cleaner to a 5- to 7-inch size, depending on the size of your child’s wrist
  • Twist a knot on one end of the pipe cleaner
  • Add the beads by grouping five of one color together, then five of a different color to make 10. We made ours with five red and five white beads. Twist the ends together to make a bracelet. Now he knows that 5 + 5 = 10.
  • Practice the different ways to get “10” using the beads. Slide to show 10 + 0 = 10,  9 + 1 =10, 8  + 2 =10, etc.
  • Now he’s ready to practice addition and subtraction from 0 to 10. For example, ask him “What is five plus three?” He can then slide three of the white beads next to the five red beads and count out eight. Practice with other combinations from 2 to 10.
  • For subtraction practice, he can slide six beads to one side, slide back four, and see that 6 - 4 = 2. Again practice with different subtraction facts from 10 and below.

This bracelet abacus is a simple hands-on tool in helping young students understand addition and subtraction combinations from 0 to 10.

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