How to Use an Abacus: Fun, Quick and Easy Math Learning

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abacus

For a moment, think about ancient mathematicians sitting outside with little-to-no noise in the city, overlooking beautiful stretches of water or vast forests. This peaceful world didn’t include the click-clack of calculators just yet.

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Vintage abacus on wooden background.

In fact, many of the world’s religions as we know them today weren’t in existence.

But one thing that was present was an abacus. Some people call these tools counting frames.

What’s an Abacus?

So, what is an abacus? Well, abacus math is the use of a calculating tool or counting frame. In today’s world, they consist of a bamboo frame with beads that slide across wires. Think of this tool as a way of counting or keeping track of things.

Original versions of these tools used beans rather than beads.

No one knows for sure when abacus math came into existence, but there is proof of its use between 2700 – 2300 BC with the Sumerian abacus. Herodotus mentions that Ancient Egyptians used a device similar to an abacus to perform simple math.

Popularity of this form of math grew next with the Persians, then the Greeks, Chinese, Romans, Indians, Japanese, Koreans, Native Americans and Russians.

How Does an Abacus Work?

A simple abacus is used for addition and subtraction, with each row of beads representing a number. But each bead may represent one number or more, depending on the math used. A 10-wire version may account for 9.999 billion numbers.

If you want to use an abacus properly, you need to follow these steps:

  1. Align: You need to align your tool first before starting. There are two rows of band beads: the top row should have 1 – 2 beads and the remaining should be at the bottom. Top beads are a value of 5, while the bottom beads represent the number 1. You can make the top beads your own number representation, too.
  2. Number Assigning: Assign a number to each column. This can be ones, tens, hundreds and can be used for decimals or larger numbers. But this is advanced, so stick to a simple digit counting.
  3. Count: To begin counting, start at the right of the device and push a bottom bead to the “up” position. This will represent, one, two, three or four, depending on how many are pushed up in the process.

If you want to represent the number 5, you’ll push the bottom beads back down and push the top bead down.

Following along, you may represent the number 100 by pushing one bead up in the third to the right row and leaving the rest of the beads down. Remember, each row represents another digit of 1 – 9, depending on the abacus.

If you wanted to represent 5,000, you would push the fourth from the right top bead to the down position and move all of the bottom position downward.

You can multiply, add, subtract and so so much more with advanced abacus techniques. It’s a lot of fun, but it can also be quite difficult for the first time user to wrap their head around this old, yet advanced form of doing calculations.

How to Teach Abacus for Kids

Kids can learn to use an abacus, too. This tool is a great option for children because it has been shown to:

  • Build confidence
  • Sharpen the brain
  • Increase mathematic speed and accuracy

An abacus will sharpen a child’s mind and will also help with logical reasoning. Many children will also benefit from increased academics in other areas of education, too.

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It’s important to know how to use an abacus. And it’s a ton of fun, too.

We looked at an advanced form of using an abacus earlier, but when working with children, the abacus may also go from side-to-side. Younger children need to start off slowly before trying to advance to large numbers, or learning multiplication or division on their device.

Don’t try to go too fast. Instead, use this as a counting tool.Pupil dressed up as teacher holding abacus in a classroom.

Every bead should represent the number one. A few games you can play with your child are:

  • Counting: Move beads from one side to another, it doesn’t matter how many, and ask your child to count the number of beads moved. Also ask your child to count the number of beads remaining.
  • Matching: Forget counting to 100, help your child’s cognitive and critical thinking skills by playing a game of matching. Move a certain number of beads on the top row over and ask your child to move the same amount of beads on the second row over.

When it comes time to add numbers together, a good method is as follows for 2+4:

  • Move all beads to the right on the abacus
  • Move 2 beads to the left on the first row
  • Move 4 beads on the second row to the left
  • Add 6 beads on the third row to get your answer

You can go to higher numbers, too, by going deeper into the rows.

If you want to teach your child about money, you can break down the value of a dollar, with each bead being worth a penny. A block of 5 beads would be a nickel, a block of ten beads would equal a dime, and so on.

Multiplication can also be done on this nifty tool.

Of course there are limits, but a simple 5 x 5 multiplication requires you to move just 5 beads to the left of the first 5 rows. The beads, when added up, would equal 25.

When your child is a little older, you’ll be able to teach division and place value using an abacus. This is a fun and exciting way to do math that doesn’t involve using a calculator or lengthy calculations on a page.

Many parents find it easier to teach their children the basics of math using these techniques. If you’re creative and make learning into a game like many parents do, you’ll find that your child wants to learn more about math with you. It’s also a great way to teach your child math before and during their standard education.

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