Life Sized Subtraction

When I taught first grade, I remember my kids had a little difficulty understanding that the greater number had to come first in a number sentence when subtracting.  I know that kids can memorize like nobody’s business, so I think it’s EXTREMELY important to get them to understand WHY so they know how to apply as the skill progressively becomes more challenging {how’s that for a long, grammatically incorrect sentence?!?!} We’ve talked about the symbol we use for subtraction and lots of key words, so it was time for some hands-on fun.

To introduce the concept, we started with a fun…SUPER simple…hands-on, whole group activity that my kids absolutely ADORED.  All that’s needed is 2 pair of dice, dry erase boards/sleeves OR something to write on, and manipulatives.  I gave each of my kids a dry erase sleeve {I LOVE these things!!!}, marker, and a wipe.  {You could always use a clear page protector, too!}  Then I set out some snap cubes {to use as counters} in front of each kiddo.  To start the activity, I passed out the 2 sets of dice to two of my little friends then asked both of them to roll the dice in their “bubble” :)  Before I let my kids help with this, I modeled it for them 3-4 times so they knew exactly what to expect!

subtraction2  subtraction3

After they rolled the dice, they repeated the amount they rolled and then we did a little quantity discrimination to determine the GREATEST number our of the two.  Once we determined the greatest number, the kids counted out that amount of snap cubes.  Then I reminded the kids to remove the smaller amount from the bigger amount.  Each time we did this, I reminded them that we ALWAYS start with the bigger number when subtracting because you can’t take away more than you already have.  Then we wrote our number sentences to match.  Loved that I was quickly able to assess understanding and then follow-up as needed!

subtraction4a  subtraction5

We’re really getting our feet wet!!!  Speaking of feet, we also did a little life-sized subtraction with a tens frame, a die, and our own two feet!  I drew out a big tens frame on butcher paper and had 10 of my friends fill the frames.  Then we rolled a die and removed that amount of friends from the tens frame.  The kids loved it…they were hilarious!!  We practiced making number sentences, too. Lots of hands-on…and feet-on?!?!…FUN subtracting!!!!


I’ll be back tomorrow talking about my math tubs and how they work in my classroom…and stay tuned for a little re-cap of last weekend’s Houston Blogger Meet-up!  Such talented, sweet teachers in this city! 


  1. Love the "life size" ten frames! So much fun! We teach a trillion (I may exaggerate a little) ways to add and subtract but finding the 10 is still my favorite!!! Thanks for sharing! I can't wait to try this!!!

  2. I love how hands on this is. It's always good to get the kids moving, it really helps them understand these concepts!
    Learning In Wonderland

  3. You are a mind reader! I was totally thinking about Math Tubs ALL.DAY.LONG! I am so excited to read about how you do them in your classroom. My littles LOVE when I use them as the manipulatives for subtracting, too.
    My First Love

  4. YES! My students have the same problem! We call the big number "big daddy". This year my district is piloting new math programs for Common Core, and some of the materials have the subtraction problems like this: 13 = 16-3. Seriously?!?!?! Just when they start getting it, THAT happens.... thank goodness for great ideas like yours to make the concept hands on!

    The Eager Teacher
    The Eager Weekend

  5. LOVE the life-sized 10 frame!!! You just rock it, girl!
    Growing Firsties

  6. Thanks for sharing! We are STRUGGLING with subtraction. Surprise?! :)

  7. Really cute idea with the ten frame. I'm sure your kids loved being part of the demonstration.
    Thanks always.


  8. Oh...we would have loved to join! THANK you for sharing!

  9. I am introducing subtraction to my kindergartners next week and love your idea of using a life sized ten frame.
    Thank you for sharing.

  10. Love these activities. Also, the idea of dry erase sleeves is BRILLIANT. I think I'll be heading to the craft store this weekend to buy some heavy duty plastic and see if I can make a few sets! Thanks for sharing!
    Granny Goes to School

  11. I love your hands- on activity for subtraction.
    Kimberly Baldwin

  12. Hi Cara,
    I love the life-sized ten frame. I was thinking if you used duct tape on a shower curtain then you could reuse it and it would wipe clean. Off to buy my shower curtain!

  13. Love your ideas!! Thank you for sharing them!! Where did you find those awesome wipe off page protectors? They look very durable!! :)

  14. I teach first and this will be such a cute idea to file away for next year when we start subtraction.

    I really wish these blogs had a 'like' button. I read so many great entries but always comment. I really wish I could show them the appreciation they deserve.


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  16. You are so inspiring! I love how bright and cheerful your classroom looks. What great ideas! It's been awhile since I pulled out the big dice. I need to do it again SOON. Thanks for sharing.

  17. I am all about 10 frames so the idea of a life sized one really intrigues me.

    I also love the dice activity and find myself using dice often because it makes it so easy to differentiate instruction by giving kids of varying abilities different dice.

  18. Hi, I just found this post on pinterest. What a great way to teach subtraction but also to introduce using 5 & 10 frames. Thx!

  19. I'm currently on my final prac as a teaching student and I want to say a HUGE THANK YOU for this post. It has saved a late night of me wondering how I'm going to go about my whole unit. Exactly what I was looking for, thanks

  20. As a teacher myself, I highly recommend not teaching them that the bigger number has to come first. When they get to fifth grade, and start working with negatives, that will confused them. 3-6 is a valid subtraction problem, the result is -3.