It has been ranked as the second most important tool of all time by Forbes.com. It turns a boring math drill into a lively, hands-on activity. It’s inexpensive, portable and doesn’t have any removable – or losable – small parts. It’s the abacus, the ancient calculating device that can literally put arithmetic at your child’s fingertips.
In addition to honing math skills, research shows that regular abacus use can improve visual and auditory memory, increase concentration and improve overall attitude toward learning.
All this good news probably makes you want to get your child started clicking those beads right away. Children as young as four or five are able to use an abacus meaningfully. No, your pre-schooler probably won’t be dividing 10-digit numbers or finding square roots – both of which can be done on an abacus – but they will be learning about number relationships, problem solving and place value, crucial foundation skills for a successful student of math.
Before beginning to work on abacus skills with your child, spend some time getting to know the tool yourself. Make sure that you are comfortable and confident with the basics. The more you are able to enjoy the abacus, the more your child will enjoy and value it too.
The Abacus Explained
Here is some background information to get you started.
The abacus is divided into two main areas, the upper deck and the lower deck, or “heaven” and “earth” respectively. The two decks are separated by a horizontal crossbar called a beam or reckoning bar. Wires or rods run from top to bottom and hold beads which can be slid up and down. Depending on the style of abacus, each rod will have one or two beads in “heaven” and four or five beads on “earth.”
Whatever style of abacus you use, the bead values are the same; lower deck beads represent a quantity of one, while upper deck beads represent a quantity of five.
To use the abacus, lay it flat on a table or your lap, heaven on top, earth on the bottom. All beads should be pushed away from the beam to start.
Use the thumb for pushing bottom beads up. Use the pointer finger for pushing bottom beads down and for moving top beads up and down.
Numbers are represented or “set” by sliding the beads toward the beam. The earth beads slide up. The heaven beads slide down. When the beads are slid away from the beam, they are not counted as part of the number. When no beads are near the beam, the abacus “reads” zero.
The first rod on the right represents the ones place. The next one to the left is the tens place. Next is hundreds and so on. With a 13 rod abacus, you can work with numbers up to a trillion. But let’s start a bit smaller. How about 1. To show 1, use the rod all the way to the right – the ones place. Slide one lower-deck bead up to the beam. There, you’ve set your first abacus number. To show 2, slide two beads up. You get the idea. Five can be shown in two ways. Either slide five “earth beads” up or slide one “heaven bead” down. Numbers 5 through 9 are made by combining upper and lower beads. For example, the number 8 is shown with one upper and three lower beads pushed to the beam.
To make larger numbers, include more rods. To show 546, for example, you would use one upper bead on the hundreds rod, four lower beads on the tens rod and one of each kind of bead ( 5 1 ) on the ones rod.
Getting your child involved
When you are comfortable with setting numbers, have your child join you. Again, start off with the basics. Let him or her manipulate the beads to set each number, one at a time. First go in order from 0 to 9. Then mix the numbers up. Then increase the size of the numbers by including the tens rod.
Take turns choosing a secret number and setting it on the abacus, then have the other person “read” the abacus to reveal the secret. Give your child clues and let her set her solution on the abacus. For example, say, “I’m thinking of an even number that is greater than five and less than seven,” or “Show me a number that is more than double your age.” The more fun you make it, the more your child will want to practice. The more practice she gets, the better her skills will become.
Next, try some simple addition problems. To add on the abacus, set the first number of the problem. The abacus holds this number for you while you move beads to add the second number. When you are done entering both numbers, simply read the abacus for your answer.
When doing these problems with your child, talk her through them step by step. Explain what to do and why. It is important for her to hear your thinking process so she will know how to approach like problems in the future. Here is an example of how you might talk through a simple adding problem.
“The problem is 2 3. Which number comes first? Two comes first. So set 2. Now, we need to add 3. Do we have enough ones to add 3? No, we don’t. Since we don’t have enough ones, we can use one five-bead. Go ahead and set 5. But we only needed to add 3 so 5 is too many. We have to take away the extras. How many extras do we need to take away? Two. What is left when we take them away? One five-bead is left. The answer to 2 3 is 5.”
Whether the abacus helps turn your child into a math whiz or just helps him become a little more confident in math class, the most important thing is that you are spending time together, learning and just enjoying each other’s company. And that all adds up to something special.
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