How to use an abacus

In a nutshell

Everyone loves an abacus*! It is such an elegant, clever tool.

But do you know how to help your child get the most out of it? If not, here are 13 practical suggestions to help you show your child how to use an abacus.

*On this page we are discussing the simple abacus.

If you are interested in teaching your child how to use the Japanese abacus, the soroban, you may wish to watch this video series.

For very young kids (ages 3-6)

1. Simply playing with it: Moving the beads helps develop hand-eye co-ordination, and exposing your child to a counting tool from an early age can only be a good thing. (Ensure that you supervise your young child as the beads, if detached, are a choking hazard and the wooden frame is quite heavy and could hurt a young foot).

2. Learning some colors: As your young child has fun playing with the beads, you can play too and refer to the colors by name.

3. Pattern awareness: You can play a game in which you make a pattern using the top half of the abacus and your child then matches the pattern on the bottom. The ability to recognize a pattern is an important skill that will later help your child with skip counting and multiplication tables.

4. Shapes: Ask your child to try to move the beads to make simple shapes – such as a square, rectangle or triangle.

5. Learn how to use an abacus to count: Move the beads in a row one-by-one from left to right with your child and say or sing the numbers from 1 to 10 as you do so.

6. Practising counting using real life events: For example, on the first day of December you could begin a count towards Christmas Day. You and your child could begin each day by moving a bead across and counting how many days have elapsed – with the excitement growing as the number 25 approaches!

7. Simple addition: Your child can have fun with simple addition questions using one row of the abacus. For example, for the sum “5 + 3”: 5 beads are counted and moved and then 3 more beads are counted and moved. Finally, the total number of beads that have been moved are counted, to arrive at the answer, 8.

For kids aged 7 and above

8. “Counting on”: This is an important skill for young kids to learn. Using the example of adding 5 and 3: after the first 5 beads have been moved across, the final 3 beads are not counted as “1, 2, 3”, but as “6, 7, 8”, with the “1, 2, 3” count being done with fingers.

9. Counting backwards: In the leadup to an exciting event, start a countdown – for example it might be ten days until your child’s birthday or till the family goes on vacation.

10. Learn how to use an abacus for subtraction: Just as with addition, the basics of subtraction can be explored on the abacus. Taking the example of “7 minus 4”: 7 beads are counted and moved. Then 4 beads are counted and moved back and finally the remaining beads are counted, to arrive at the answer, 3.

11. Multiplication patterns: For older children, the abacus can be a nice tool to visually depict multiplication tables. For example, if you move 3 beads to the left on each row and ignore the other 7 beads on each row, you will have created a 10 by 3 bead formation displaying the 3 times table.

12. Guess the number: Set-up a number on the abacus and see how many goes it takes your child to guess it (without looking at the abacus). After each unsuccessful guess, say “higher” or “lower”. Then swap roles and see how many guesses you take. This game is a fun way to improve your child’s familiarity with 2-digit numbers and of the concepts of higher and lower and it also introduces them to some basic elements of strategic thinking.

13. Assign each row of the abacus place value – for example, the bottom row is the ones, the next one the tens, then the hundreds and so on. This will allow you to introduce large numbers to your child – for example you could represent what year it is, or even add large numbers together. Note that for many children, this exercise will be a lot easier to follow if you turn the abacus 90 degrees to the left and place it down flat on a table. This will allow your child to read the number from left to right – the same way that we represent numbers in writing.


We hope the above ideas give you some food for thought and help you help your child learn how to use an abacus.

Above all, have fun! There is something innately pleasant about the abacus – it is hard to see one and not want to touch it and hear the click and clack of the beads shifting into place. Kids these days are often made to feel that mathematics is difficult and boring – so exposing them to a tool which makes it easy and fun can only be a good thing!

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