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Fun Schooling with the Abacus

Did you know that not only can an abacus help a child with math, but your child can also have fun schooling with the abacus?

What is an abacus? Do you imagine one of these?


That’s more of a toy and can’t be effectively used for calculations any more complex than addition and subtraction. An abacus is an ancient calculator that has been used for thousands of years. It is still in use today, especially in Asia and the Middle East. The word abacus originally comes from the Greek word abax for “counting board”. The Greeks used boards with sand on them to draw out their equations. The Romans used boards with grooves and beads or rocks. The abacus we are more familiar with originated in Asia.

Did you know the abacus, especially the soroban, can be used not only for addition and subtraction, but also multiplication, division, and also square roots? In 1946, a person using the soroban outperformed an electric calculating machine! The abacus can be a useful tool in your homeschool. It is visual and tactile, and its usage can be transferred to mental math easily. Once a child has done calculations repeatedly using the abacus, they can start to visualize them without using the abacus – math calculations can become a mental picture.

The Chinese abacus has 7 beads on each rod, with 2 on the top and 5 on the bottom, separated by one horizontal beam.

stock image courtesy of catwoman1
stock image courtesy of catwoman1

The Japanese abacus is called a soroban and has 5 beads on each rod, with only one on the top and 4 on the bottom, divided by one horizontal beam (the reckoning bar). It has at least 9 rods, and the number of rods is always an odd number.

Each abacus is set to zero when all of the beads above the bar are up (not in contact with the reckoning bar) and all the beads below the bar are down (not in contact with the reckoning bar). The units rods on the Japanese abacus are the rods with the dots on them. The units rod on the Chinese abacus is the one on the far right. For either abacus, on the units rod, if you raise one bead below the bar up to the reckoning bar, that represents 1. Two raised up to the reckoning bar represents 2 and so on. A bead above the bar lowered to the reckoning bar represents 5. To the left of the units rod, you will have the tens. A bead above the bar lowered to the reckoning bar in the tens rod represents 50. Two beads below the bar raised up to the reckoning bar represent 20, three represent 30, and so on. On the soroban, you can also show decimal places, to the right of any units rod.

Your child can make an abacus out of Popsicle sticks! Here’s a great how-to make a Chinese abacus at Simple Kids Crafts.  Consider adjusting the directions to make a Japanese soroban instead, because it’s easier to use and handle.

Once you have made or bought your own abacus, you can start using it with your children to make homeschool math fun! Here is an article on How to Learn Math with an Abacus.  (Please note they are using a Chinese abacus in the article, but you can easily follow the steps with a soroban as well.) Your children will have fun clicking those beads for a change instead of the usual pencil and paper. It sure beats counting on your fingers!

Start with addition and subtraction and then give multiplication and division a try. You may find your child memorizing the patterns each number makes. Once this starts happening, they may be able to use the abacus in their mind. Here is a handy, step-by step abacus lesson plan designed for Grades 4 to 6, complete with worksheets. (Please note it’s on the wayback machine since PBS has taken it down from its website, but you can still download the worksheets).

If you would prefer your child learn about the abacus and mental math from someone else, you could try a UCMAS centre. UCMAS has locations all over the world and their programs are for ages 4 and up. Unfortunately, the only one in Canada at this time is in Mississauga.

Are you having fun schooling with the abacus and trying one out or making one in your homeschool! Let me know in the comments below!

Love, Luck &


Please note: This article was originally published in April 2013 and has been revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.


Kimberly is a homeschooling mother of two living with her dear husband of over 25 years in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She works from home as a homeschool coach and offers OBM, writing, editing, social media, and tech services. In her free time she likes to hand-spin, knit, read, volunteer in local theatre, and horseback ride.

2 thoughts on “Fun Schooling with the Abacus

  1. Hi Kimberley,
    I would love to connect and discuss the possibility of homeschooling.
    I look forward to hearing from you.

    1. Hi Jill! Feel free to message me by clicking on the popup in the bottom right hand corner of this website. Looking forward to chatting with you!

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