The educational value of the abacus

Everyone knows the abacus is an amazing mathematical tool. But surely in this age of calculators and computers its day has gone. Right? No, not at all! Some have even claimed it is instrumental in giving kids a head start.

The Amazon bestseller list for ‘Mathematics & Counting toys’ makes for interesting reading.

Unsurprisingly many of the products are high-tech, modern gizmos – of the multi-colored and flashing lights variety. But, sitting quietly at number eight is the Abacus, a product that is about as low-tech as it is possible to get. Far from being replete with all manner of modern tricks, this one is no less than four and a half thousand years old!

Why are so many being sold as Christmas toys this year? Why is this primitive collection of beads and wires still so popular?

1. It is visually colorful and fascinating
2. Kids learn well with concrete materials – being able to touch and see the beads involves their senses and helps reinforce number concepts
3. In many cultures it is still in active use – many grandparents and parents now living in the western world enjoy seeing it being enjoyed by a new generation
4. Some kids will fall in love with their present – it will become their new favorite toy. For these kids, numbers will most likely become a source of joy – which as a parent is more than half the battle
5. It can grow with your child’s development, starting from simple counting to addition and subtraction

So if your child receives an abacus as a Christmas present this year, be excited!

How to use the abacus

The simple version consists of ten rows of ten beads – enabling children to count to 100 and to do basic addition and subtraction.

Check out this cute young kid doing some sums:

 

You may have noted that on a couple of occasions Erica actually gets the count incorrect. But because she has already developed an awareness of simple sums she overcomes this – she knows that five plus two is seven – so even when she counts to eight by mistake she still says the correct answer. This familiarity with simple sums is very important – and regularly playing with an abacus is a great way to build it up.

Why not begin by telling your child that their new toy is magic! Show them how to do a simple sum, just as in the video – and then get them to show off their magic trick in front of family and friends. The congratulations and encouragement they receive will be good for their confidence – and most importantly will help them associate math with fun and success.

The real deal

What about if you’re looking for a gift for a slightly older child? Or what if your own child is a budding math genius and you want something a bit more challenging?

If so, check out the Japanese abacus or Soroban. It is a seriously powerful tool!

Recently, I was lucky enough to have a vacation in Japan. The train network in Tokyo is extraordinary – dispersing the city’s 37 million residents with stunning efficiency – and it is clearly the product of highly sophisticated computer modelling. Yet in the midst of this futuristic brilliance the station master had an abacus on his desk!

This presented a unique opportunity for me. A decade earlier I had badly mangled a computer science assignment requiring me to replicate the workings of a soroban. About the only thing I had learned was the word ‘soroban’ – one of the four or five words I now knew in Japanese – so I was able to proudly point to the soroban on the station master’s desk and name it.

His grin lit up the room – he was clearly delighted a foreigner knew the name for the tool he used to do his sums.

And with good reason. Grab a calculator, watch this video and see if you can do addition faster than a nine year old Japanese girl with her soroban:

 

This form of the abacus is harder to learn – because it assigns place value to each row. But it is for this reason it is so powerful.

If you wish to guide your child in using a soroban read these instructions. They might appear to be a bit daunting at first but are actually quite easy to follow.

Math – at the speed of light!

Is the abacus a major reason why students in Japan and China so consistently outperform their counterparts in the west? It is hard to say – this article provides an interesting insight into the continuing role the soroban plays in Japanese education. And even if you don’t read the article – have a look at this video to see a seven year old Japanese girl demonstrating the soroban’s extraordinary power:

 

So, in summary – if you have a bright son, daughter, niece, nephew or grandchild – an abacus is not a bad idea for a present. And if your child is given one – don’t bemoan its lack of high-tech features – instead help your child to have fun with it, safe in the knowledge it has been a feature of humanity for thousands and thousands of years.

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