I was recently asked what I use for math. Well, my daughter has always been drawn to numbers, so introducing math concepts within daily life and conversation hasn’t been a challenge. Therefore, I really haven’t adhered to any specific math program. Besides, it’s beginning stuff, so we mostly work on facts and explore operations in various games and projects.
Right now, however, we’re bumping things up a notch by exploring math with the abacus. I really like the hands-on aspect of it. But, since I’d never really worked with an abacus before, I picked up a copy of Activities for the AL Abacus: A Hands-on Approach to Arithmetic by Joan A. Cotter, Ph.D., to use as a guideline (see the Resource Library). There’s a book of worksheets that you can purchase separately to go with it, but we are not using it. My daughter just writes out problems as needed ‘Old-school-style’ on a dry erase board OR ‘Super-old-school-style’ on piece of paper .
Of course, we also needed to buy an abacus…
…or, did we?
I mean, why not make one? After all, one of the great things about having no strict timetable for learning is that we have the freedom to come at it from many angles. By making one, my daughter could also work on fine motor, creativity, and craftsmanship skills through painting, using a glue gun, and “stringing” beads.
This is what we used to make our abacus:
- 2 laser-cut wooden frames found in the woodworking section of a craft store (mine were sized for a 5”x7” photo)
- 1 package of narrow wooden skewers (from the grocery store)
- 2 colors of basic plastic beads (make sure the hole is large enough for the skewers to fit through)
- Spray paint (optional – we used black but color doesn’t matter)
- Acrylic paint (favorite colors)
- Hot glue gun
- Some sort of heavy duty glue or epoxy (we used Gorilla Glue)
- Black sharpie pen
- X-acto knife or box cutter (anything can be used to cut the skewers)
Here’s how we made it:
- We spray painted one side of each frame to begin with so there wouldn’t be any unfinished wood exposed when it was assembled (you can skip this step if you want)
- My daughter painted the other side of each frame with the colors of her choice and she opted to paint them so they would be different. Place value markings will need to be written on one side so make sure those will be visible when choosing paint colors (see step 8)
- Take 10 skewers (look for the straightest ones). Break or cut the skewers so they are long enough to span the width of the center cut-out – make sure there’s about ¼ inch overlap on each side since the ends will be glued to the frames.
- (Note: I used an X-acto knife to score, or cut a groove in the wood, then I was able to break it at that point. The ends will be hidden so they don’t have to be neat).
- On the spray painted side of one of the frames, measure and mark where you’re going to place the skewers so they are evenly spaced. This will vary depending on the size of the frame you use. Also, make sure there is enough space between rows so the beads can move back and forth.
- (Note: The center cut-out on my frames was actually 4 ¾” x 6 ¾” so the spacing between the skewers ended up being about 7/16” – this was a little advanced for my daughter at the time so I went ahead and did the measuring and marking. You could also switch to metric if that’s easier – whatever works).
- The activity book uses an abacus that has 2 colors of beads on each row – five of one color and then five of another. Slide the beads onto the skewers following this pattern for first five rows, then switch it for the remaining five rows. For example, ours went like this:
Rows 1-5 = white-white-white-white-white- blue-blue-blue-blue-blue
Rows 6-10 = blue-blue-blue-blue-blue-white-white-white-white-white
- (Note: My daughter chose a bag of light blue beads and a bag of iridescent clear beads. They looked different in the bags but there wasn’t as much contrast when they were put on the skewers. You might want to consider using a light and a dark color for greater clarity).
- BEFORE gluing, put the skewers in place based on your markings to make sure spacing is OK. Then use hot glue to secure them in place (for this, my daughter used the glue gun and I placed the skewers – teamwork). Make sure you’re gluing to the spray painted side and not your child’s “creative artistry” side.
- Next, use a heavy-duty glue or epoxy on the ends of each skewer and attach the second frame. You are basically sandwiching the skewers between the two frames.
- (Note: Depending on the glue, the abacus will likely have to dry for several hours – make sure none of the beads are touching the glue while it dries and set a heavy book on top. I tried to use only hot glue at first but I couldn’t get the ends covered fast enough; the glue cooled too quickly and the frame did not stick well).
- When it’s all dry and ready to be handled, use a permanent pen to make the following markings exactly where you see them (notice the 2 skewers that have no markings).
That’s it. All done. Now, you’re ready to use your uniquely-made abacus.