DIY Abacus: a math activity for kids

I am not the craftiest person on the planet. But when I take time to make something myself, I want it to be useful. This holds true with the activities that I do with my kids, as well. My preschooler, Buddy, loves to count everything. And Turtle, the 2 year old, does her best. With 2 kids who seem to have an interest in numbers, an abacus seemed like an obvious addition to our home. (Addition…get it??)

But, I’m just going to be honest here, this was an “on-a-whim” sort of project. And when I’m feeling whimsical, the last thing I want to do is go shopping. So I scrounged through the basement and my miscellaneous craft supplies boxes to make it happen. Which, in my humble opinion, is the most fun way to make something.

What is an abacus?

An abacus is a counting frame that dates back to 2700 BC, originally used for basic addition and subtraction. It was a helpful tool for accounting purposes  to handle calculations too difficult to do in your head. Once the Chinese upped the abacus game by redeveloping it in the 2nd century BC to do multiplication, division, square roots and all sorts of other computations. The abacus made its way around the world and was the go to source in the markets. But once it hit France, it became the learning tool that most of us know today.

There are lots of different styles of abaci based on the region it was used. The one I think most of us are familiar with is the school abacus. You can find one in most preschools and elementary schools. They’re those plastic or wood frames that have 10 rows of 10 beads each. Each bead represents 1. Preschoolers can use it when learning to count, moving 1 bead over as she counts or practice skip counting (counting by 2s or 5s). As children grow, the abacus can be used to show addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

What you need

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Since I made this on a whim using stuff I had around my house, my materials can be substituted for basically anything else you have on hand. Feel free to go to your favorite craft supply store to get cute stuff if you want. But it’s not a necessity.

abacus 1


Bottom half of gift box (shoe box would also work)
Packing tape
Hole punch
Wire, string or pipe cleaners (10)
Wire cutters (if using wire)
100 Beads


  1. If using a gift box like I did, tape the corners so the box doesn’t collapse. (I also taped some construction paper on the inside of mine to make it look pretty, for video and picture taking purposes.)abacus box frame
  2. Measure your box and mark 10 evenly spaced rows on both sides of the box (make sure they line up!). The box can be turned landscape or portrait so select whichever orientation would work best for the spacing of your rows and the size of your beads. My box was 10 inches tall, so I put my first row 1/2″ from the top and marked every inch after that. abacus row spacing
  3. Using the hole punch (or other tool appropriate for your frame), punch holes where you made your marks.
  4. Cut 10 pieces of the wire, string or pipe cleaners. Make sure you cut the pieces long enough to wrap around the back. If using string, make it long enough to tie in the back. This will be the rod that your beads sit on. I had some decorative wire left over from my wedding that my husband has been trying to throw away for 8 years. I refused to let him because craft supplies are the one thing I can’t get rid of. This was my opportunity to show him how right I was. But if I ever did this again, I would use an easier wire to handle or heavy cordage/string. Don’t tell him I said that.
  5. Thread your beads on your wire or string. I used these pony beads because I had a bunch extra of extras from the calm down bottles we made. There should be 10 beads on each row. I recommend using at least two sets of colors so you can have sets of 5 on row. This helps children visualize sets of 5s, which can be helpful when they learn to do addition in their heads. For example, when adding 6+8 they’ll see there are 2 sets of 5s in the problem and the remaining numbers equal 4, for a total of 14. If you’re making this with toddlers and/or preschoolers who are still learning colors, try to avoid putting 2 similar colors (blue and purple, for example) on the same row to avoid confusion.Abacus beads
  6. Slide your rows into your frame.
  7. If using string, tie the ends around the back of the box. If using wire, twist the wire together at the back or tape the ends along the side and back.abacus sides

That’s it! You’ve just made yourself an abacus.

Another (easier) option

picture frame abacus

It wasn’t until after I cut all the wires and did my final taping did I realize that I had an extra picture frame in a drawer in my dining room. If you have an unused frame and pipe cleaners, you can make an even faster abacus. My frame only fit 5 rows but Turtle loves walking around the house with it counting her beads. It’s her “baby one.”

All I did was take the backing out of the frame, thread beads on pipe cleaners, and tie the pipe cleaners to the sides of the frame. Easy peasy. The pipe cleaners bend really easily, so it won’t last forever. But it was so easy to put together that it’ll be easy to fix, if needed.

Abacus activities

final abaci

There’s a whole host of things you can do with an abacus. Here are a few ideas:

  • Practice Counting. An abacus is good for teaching one-to-one correspondence. It also gets kids in a habit of moving a counted item over, which will help them keep track when they count objects in real life.
  • Addition and Subtraction. For preschoolers, your addition and subtraction can take place all on one row. Start with beads on one side and have them count as you add/subtract them from side to side. To work with larger numbers, use the different rows to represent different numbers and have them add them all together.
  • Multiplication. The abacus is a great way to visualize more difficult concepts in math. Lining up 6 beads on one side for 4 rows can help them understand why 6 X 4 = 24.
  • Skip Counting.  If practicing counting by 5s, have your child move the beads over as she counts.
  • Patterns. Your kids can make their own number patterns. It’s a lot more fun than writing them out on a worksheet!
  • Shapes. Have some fun with the abacus! Move the beads around to see if you can make different shapes – or maybe even letters!

What kinds of activities do you think you can do with an abacus?