7 Everyday Ways to Help Your Child Understand Subtraction

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Has your child mastered the concept of addition but is finding subtraction a lot trickier to understand? This is very common for children in the first few years of primary school. Here are 7 fun activities you can do at home without too much extra time or money to help your child.

It’s not important to use formal subtraction straight away. It is far more important for children to understand the concept of ‘take away’ in a hands on, real life situation. This will give them a stronger understanding of the concept, thus making it easier for them to understand formal, more complex subtraction later on. Remember, you don’t necessarily have to use the term ‘subtract’. Use other vocabulary too, such as ‘take away’, ‘less’ and ‘minus’. It’s important for children to know that all of this vocabulary is related to the same concept.

1. Meal times

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A simple, hands on, real life way to understand subtraction is while eating food.

“There are 8 beans on the dinner plate. If you eat 6 of them, how many will you have left?”

“I know we had 10 strawberries at the start. Now we only have 2. How many have we eaten?”

2. Lego

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I don’t think I’ve ever met a child who didn’t like playing with Lego! It’s fun to play with and builds creativity, but can also be used to teach almost any maths concept!

Build a tower of blocks. Count how many blocks you have used. Then take some away. Count how many you have now.

Play with the Lego people. Maybe you have 6 Lego people. Maybe 2 of them get on the Lego train and travel away. How many Lego people are left?

3. Reading Backwards

Counting backwards can help children understand subtraction and can make it easier for them to work out subtraction problems later.

After you have finished sharing a bedtime story or a take-home reader, look through the book backwards. Look at the page numbers and use them to count backwards.

4. Songs and Nursery Rhymes

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Have you noticed how many songs and nursery rhymes have counting in them? Songs such as ‘Five Little Ducks’ and ‘Ten Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed’ are fantastic for basic subtraction. Use your fingers (and encourage your child to as well) and take one finger away as the verses go along. Talk to your child about it too.

“There were five ducks and one didn’t come back. That means there’s only four ducks now.”

“There were ten monkeys jumping on the bed, but three have fallen off now! How many monkeys are still jumping on the bed?”

5. Play Shop

Set up a play shop and make some pretend money. When family and friends ‘buy’ items at the shop, encourage and help your child to work out how much change is needed.

“I have eight dollars but this teddy only costs five dollars. How much change should I have?”

“I had ten dollars but now I only have five dollars left. How much have I spent?”

6. Go Outside


Next time you are outside or going for a walk, see if you can find any examples of subtraction.

“I can see four birds in the tree. Oh look, two flew away! Now how many are there?”

“There were three sticks on the ground but our dog picked one up! How many are left on the ground?”

“There are five flowers on that plant. If we picked two of them, how many would be left?”

7. Board Games

Do you have any board games at home that involve subtraction? Games such as checkers, where playing pieces have to be removed from the board, provide great opportunities to discuss subtraction. ‘Sorry’, ‘Hungry Hungry Hippos’ and ‘Guess Who’ also lend themselves to discussions around subtraction. What games can you find at home that involve subtraction?

Do you have other tried and tested ways to help your child with subtraction? Share your ideas in the comments below! 

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