How to Use an Abacus and Why Your Child Needs One

by | Feb 6, 2021 | Blog, Recommendations | 0 comments

Last updated on September 30th, 2023 at 07:13 pm

How to Use an Abacus and Why Your Child Needs One

Did you grow up learning how to use an abacus? Although we had one in our home, in my mind, it was nothing more than a useless wooden toy. I vividly remember playing with our old black, wooden abacus in our basement as a child. I’d tilt the abacus down to hear all the beads crashing to the top. Replicating the sound, I’d tilt it down to hear the beads crash again as they hit the bottom.

I knew the abacus was a mathematical tool, but I had no idea what each bead meant. I’d count each bead under my finger and wonder what the beam in the middle was for.  I couldn’t figure out the significance of seven beads in each row.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned how to properly use the abacus, and when I found out, I wished I had learned its use much earlier in life.

Numbers have never come really easy for me. I always said that I was more of a word person, but I believe that numbers could have come easier for me, had I used an abacus to help strengthen my number sense.

What’s so great about it?

The abacus is said to be the world’s first calculator. It was first discovered in Ancient Mesopotamia but made its way from the Middle East to Japan, China, Russia, and worldwide. The abacus goes by many names, including Suanpan, Soroban, and Shoty. Each culture has taken on a slightly different version of the tool.

It can be used to perform addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication and extract square and cubic roots. That’s a lot of functions for this small, simple wooden tool!

How do you use it?

When using the abacus, you use either your index or thumb to manipulate the beads.

The top portion is called the upper deck, and the bottom portion is called the lower deck.

It is prepared for use, or zeroed out, by laying it flat on a table and pushing all the upper and lower beads up.

The upper deck beads are each valued at five times the amount of one lower beads.

Each column represents a place value: the far right column represents the ones place, the next column represents the tens place, and the next column to the left represents the hundreds place and onward.

What is the simple school abacus?

Melissa & Doug brand of a simple school abacus

The simple school abacus stands upright and has ten rows of ten beads.

In this version, the lowest row represents the ones place, and the row above it represents the tens, continuing upwards.

This format can be instrumental in teaching young children how to count and how to visualize groups of ten. It helps in teaching place value, adding and subtracting, as well as division and multiplication.

The simple school version often comes in colorful beads, making it appealing to young children and easy to distinguish between the place values.

What’s the difference between the Soroban and Suanpan?

Child using a colorful traditional Japanese abacus

Soroban is the Japanese abacus. It is slightly different from the Chinese Suanpan abacus.

The Soroban has four beads in the lower column and one bead in the upper column. After you count the four lower beads, you can exchange them for one upper bead. Another name for the Soroban is the 4+1 abacus.

On the Suanpan, count the five lower beads before exchanging them for one upper bead. Another name for the Suanpan is the 5+2 abacus.

The Soroban uses the base 10 numbering system, while the Suanpan uses the base 18 numbering system. Some people find the Soroban to be more simple and easier as it uses the familiar base 10 numbering system. Another name for the base 10 numbering system is the decimal system.

Because the simple school abacus layout is so different from the Soroban or the Suanpan, I like to have both a simple school abacus and a Soroban or Suanpan on hand.

Which one is right for my kids?

We have started all the kids using the simple school abacus early on, and only transition to the Sorobon or Suanpan as they are able to count to 100 and easily manipulate the beads. Many kids successfully learn the traditional version as early as 5 or 6 years old.

What are the benefits?

Using the abacus to assist in math calculations has many benefits.

  • It lightens the load on our short-term memory. The brain can only store so much in short-term memory. Instead of memorizing facts and taxing short-term memory, it allows for solving without memorizing these strategies.  This, in turn, frees up the brain to complete more complex calculations.
  • It is a multi-sensory tool. It teaches the brain to associate abstract thought with a physical object, building spatial reasoning and imagination.
  • In addition to the benefits of physically moving the beads, there is a method to using the abacus that strictly uses the mind. This method involves imagining counting the beads, instead of physically moving them, which also strengthens imagination. 
  • Similar to math manipulatives with younger children, the abacus builds independence to tackle math problems. It allows the students to see the numbers and how they relate to each other and have the confidence to try and solve them. A student of any math level can use it, which makes it great for all ages.

While these are just some of the specific benefits of learning the abacus, the way that it can strengthen number sense and overall understanding of math makes it an essential tool for any child learning math.

Check out this video to learn how to count on the abacus!

Here are a few of our favorite abacuses:

Melissa & Doug simple school

Japanese Soroban

Chinese Suanpan

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