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13 Simple Ways to Practice Addition and Subtraction

January 30, 2021 by Kristin Halverson




In my day, we just memorized math. I don’t know that I ever really truly understood much of what math was nor was I able to compute higher-level skills until I started teaching math and learned how to be flexible with numbers. Flexibility with numbers is a key foundational skill for young learners and those who don’t have it, struggle from early on. When it is hard to figure out what 7 + 4 =, a child will become easily frustrated, leading to the oh so often felt and heard, “I’m just no good at math.” It isn’t about memorization and speed (puuuhhhleeeease – stop with the timed tests!) with basic addition and subtraction – it is about developing strategies that lead to fluency, automaticity, and understanding. 

There are a number of ways to accomplish this, but one thing I am passionate about is making sure instruction is developmentally appropriate. Research tells us that learning through play is most appropriate for early childhood students (and that designation goes through age 8 or 9 depending on where you look) and the kids are way more engaged when they’re playing games. To develop strategic thinking, use lots of concrete representations to start, then move to the more abstract (for example, start with dot dice and move on to numeral dice). So, here are 13 ways to practice simple addition and subtraction that are sure to please.

Way 1. Dice

There are so many different kinds of dice you can get now and if you can’t find the ones you want, there’s DIY wood block dice!  Place value blocks, ten frames, dots, numerals of any range with any number of sides, big and wooden dice, colorful dice, foam dice… Just search for dice online – but be prepared to get lost in that rabbit hole! Lots of work with making five and ten is required in K/1 and this can easily be done with addition (and frankly, subtraction, too – think fact families) and dice. Tenzi is a great way to have multiple players with a target number in a fast-paced, fun game.

2. Deck of Cards

Pull out the numbered cards and only use those. You can use them in a number of ways – simply flip two cards and add or subtract, play make five or make ten go fish, addition/subtraction war (flip two cards each, whoever has the most/least wins all four cards, repeat) or any of a number of other card games.

3. Dominoes

This low prep way to practice addition and subtraction involves simply giving students a bin of dominoes and having them pull one at a time. Then, they either add or subtract using the two sides of the domino. It is important, as with all of these ideas, to encourage strategy use. They should subitize the numbers, use counting on strategy, think about a rekenrek or a ten frame – playing these while simply counting all the dots won’t improve their skills at all.

Way 4. Hopscotch  –

Need to get some wiggles out? Go out to the playground or make an indoor tape hopscotch board and give each square a number 0-10. The directions can vary based on your students’ abilities and be used to find the missing addend or subtrahend (“What goes with 6 to make 10?” and they hop to the 4) or to do more basic addition and subtraction (toss two small pebbles or sticks and add/subtract the two numbers). Ready to up the challenge factor? Have kids make the target number a different way after they give you the first way or make a target number with three addends.

5. Musical Chairs –

This is another movement activity for math where you simply put number models on index cards – one per chair. Then play musical chairs like you always would, but kids have to answer their problems correctly to stay in the game as well!

6. Sparkle –

This whole class game can be used to practice skip count adding by any number you choose. Select a number to stop at and whoever follows the person with that number says, “Sparkle,” with the next person being out. For example, count by 5’s to 40. The kids stand in a circle and have to count by 5’s going around the circle (“0, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, Sparkle, (student is out), 0,5, 10, etc.). This continues until there is one student left standing! My students love this game and it is so easy to play if you’re waiting for a specials class to start or have a few extra minutes!

Way 7. How Many Are Hiding? –

Using unifix cubes, have your paired students create one tower of 5 or 10 (depending on your target number – going to other numbers once they are solid in 5 and 10). One student from each pair takes the entire tower and puts it behind their back, breaking the tower into two parts. Then, they show their partner one of the towers, and the partner has to guess how many are hiding behind their partner’s back. This is another favorite in my classroom.

8. Beach Ball Toss

Get a cheap beach ball and put numbers 0-10 all over it with a permanent marker. Partners toss the ball back and forth, adding or subtracting whatever numbers their hands land closest to! Gross motor and math at the same time, while the kids are learning? That’s a winner!

9. Shake, Spill, and Add/Subtract

Red and yellow counters placed in a cup are all you need to practice addition and subtraction with shake, spill, and add/subtract. Place your target number of counters into the cup, shake, spill onto the table and then add or subtract (just like it the name sounds!). I usually have my students record their answers by drawing or coloring in the circles on a recording sheet along with writing the number model. For subtraction, they just have to know to start with the larger number, then we stack the other counter on top to represent the ‘taking away.’

Way 10. Color By Number

There are plenty of color by number addition or subtraction pages out there for those days when you just need a few minutes of quiet. The best part? Students get a self-checking, fine-motor practicing math activity that they love so you both win!

11. Eyes Closed –

This game can be done as a small group game to start and then with partners once the kids know how to play. Grab whatever is close and easy and put out a certain amount of that object on the table. Have the students close their eyes and either add some more or take some away. Have the students open their eyes and they have to write on their whiteboard + or – and how many.

12. Guess My Way –

Using a bead rack/rekenrek and a target number of 10, screen your bead rack so students can’t see and make 10 in any way (0/10, 1/9/ 2/8, etc.). While you’re doing that, have students make 10 on their own bead rack. When you’re all ready, have students guess what way you made 10 by sharing their way. Keep guessing until there’s a winner (if students are ready, they can be the next ‘maker,’ taking turns each time there’s a new winner. 

Way 13. Riddles –

Kids love to solve riddles, so make them math riddles! Create a set of task cards with four choices and three clues that can be either addition or subtraction practice, or both! For example, the answer options could be 10, 8, 7, 4 (you determine the level of difficulty in the number models). The clues might be, “The answer is not 5 + 5. The answer is not 3 + 4. The answer is not 4 + 0,” leaving them with the answer to the riddle (8).

Give your students lots of options for concrete representation practice before moving on to the more abstract. We do lots of practice with bead racks and ten frames, so I have these tools out for kids to use, but also large versions on my whiteboard. Kids can visualize the pieces moving without actually moving them after a while, and then eventually they just have that image in their mind and don’t need to look at the tool. Remember, it is about strategies and understanding – not memorization and speed!

Written by: Kristin Halverson

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