Years ago, I made a homemade abacus just like this with my oldest son. It was another way to illustrate place value and to do simple addition and subtraction without using fingers. This is a simple math craft to add a little interest on an afternoon when everyone’s sick of math books---it’s fun to learn to count on an abacus, and even more fun when you get to customize it. Everybody in our homeschool got in on the act this time, even the 3-year-old!
With a little pre-prep, you can even turn this into a math history lesson.
First let me give you a few links that you can use to teach your kids:
Abacus: Mystery of the Bead has a history of the abacus and a more detailed explanation of how to use it for computation.
And if you’d like to try a different kind of abacus, here are instructions for using the AL Abacus that Right Start Math uses.
Now let’s make an abacus!
You will need:
- 6 wooden popsicle sticks
- 2-3 bamboo skewers cut into 6 3-1/2” long pieces (you’ll want to cut off the pointy ends)
- 30 plastic pony beads (not the tiny ones, make sure they fit and slide smoothly on your bamboo skewers)
- glue (We used a high-temp hot glue gun. You could use tacky glue, but you’ll want to clamp it with some clothespins while it dries.)
How to assemble your abacus:
- Lay down 1 popsicle stick and apply glue on it’s top face, along its whole length.
- Lay the ends of the bamboo skewer sticks in the glue as shown.
- Apply glue all along one face of a 2nd popsicle stick.
- Place it glue side down over the ends of the bamboo sticks (you are sandwiching the ends between the 2 popsicle sticks).
- Squeeze the popsicle sticks firmly together with your fingers and allow to set. If you are using tacky glue, clip with clothespins to hold in place.
- Thread 4 beads onto each stick.
- Lay down another popsicle stick and apply glue along it’s whole length.
- Place the partially assembled abacus on top of the glued stick, leaving about a half inch or so gap between the beads and the stick (see photo).
- Glue another popsicle stick and sandwich the skewers like you did before.
- Press firmly (if using tacky glue, clip with clothespins to hold).
- Thread one bead on the end of each skewer.
- Lay down another popsicle stick and apply glue along its whole length.
- Place the bare ends of the skewers in the glue.
- Glue the last popsicle stick and place it glue side down over the ends, sandwiching them between the two popsicle sticks.
- Press firmly and now you can use it! (If using tacky glue, clamp with clothespins. You will want to allow it to dry for a few hours.)
Variations: You can make a larger abacus using the larger “tongue depressor” style craft sticks and larger wooden beads. Use whatever color combination you like (the one in the step-by-step photos was made with glow in the dark beads!).
While you will probably want an adult to actually handle the hot glue gun, kids can thread the beads and place the sticks in place.
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