Subtraction learning games
By Michelle Barrington |
Subtraction facts

Subtraction is a skill which is taught following addition and many children will learn subtraction as the opposite of addition. Subtraction is sequential, like addition, and your child will move from counting and combining objects they can see, to using numbers as replacements for completed counts with mental strategies, to recordings that support mental strategies.

Children often find subtraction trickier than addition due to the language used. Subtraction is taught as ‘taking away’ from a group then ‘comparing’ two groups and finally finding ‘how many more’.

Activities and games at home which allow children to practice subtraction skills should help them become confident mathematicians in no time. The use of worksheets and flash cards should be discouraged, instead aim for fun, engaging activities.

Subtraction for kids aged 5-6

If your child is aged 5-6 years then they need to see subtraction modelled with concrete materials. They are still drawing subtraction problems and learning to use the language ‘take away’, ‘left’, ‘difference’, ‘minus’ and ‘less’.

  • Subtraction Bowling – use bottles from your recycling to create Ten Pin Bowling at home. Let your child roll a ball and count how many a knocked down and how many are left.
  • When eating dinner, particularly vegetables, count out how many are on the plate and then comment on how many have been eaten and how many are left.
  • Cereal necklaces – have children thread Cheerios or Fruit Loops onto a piece of string. Take turns to roll a dice and ‘eat’ away that number of Cheerios from the necklace. The winner is the first to eat their necklace.

Subtraction for kids aged 7-8

Children aged 7-8 years are learning to count back from a number to solve subtraction problems. They may show this as jumps on a number line. They are learning to relate addition and subtraction for example they know that 15 + 3 = 18 and therefore 18-3 = 15. They are learning to hold numbers in their working memory and move away from concrete materials.

  • Bunny ears is a fun game to help move kids on from concrete materials to numbers which some children find an abstract concept and works well with subtraction. Ask children to show you doubles eg 4 and 4, and then ask them to subtract 5 and see if they can do it without looking.
  • Blocks in the bowl – place counters, coins, buttons or other items at home on top of an ice-cream container. While children cover their eyes take some of the objects and place them under the container. Children then guess how many you have hidden before checking.
  • At Christmas, Advent calendars are an excellent way to countdown and are just like working backwards on a number line.

Subtraction for kids aged 9-10

Children 9-10 years are subtracting using two, three and four digit numbers. They can use a range of strategies and talk about their working out. Increasingly kids are working with word problems so fun activities where you model this process to your child are important.

  • Choose a three-digit number without repeating any digit and without using zero, for example 381. You reverse the order of the digits to create a second number, in this case 183. The child subtracts the smaller number from the larger and records this as a number sentence. The answer is used to start another reversal subtraction. Play continues until zero is reached. The process could be repeated for other three-digit numbers. Together with your child discuss any patterns they observe.

Subtraction for kids aged 11-12

Children aged 11-12 are using and applying subtraction strategies correctly and applying these strategies to work with numbers of any size. Children at this age are also applying their knowledge of patterns to solve problems for example 5-2 = 3 so 500-200 = 300.

  • Develop mental computation strategies with your child by doing calculations in your head and talking through the process. Share your strategies and think of different ways of calculating the answer. For example, to calculate 75 – 32, you can do 75 – 30 = 45 and then 45 – 2 = 43. Another possibility is to do 70 – 30 = 40 and then 5 – 2 = 3, so the answer is 40 + 3 = 43. Now consider 75 – 38. This can be done as 75 – 40 = 35 and then 35 + 2 = 37. Another possibility is 75 – 30 = 45, 45 – 5 = 40, and then 40 – 3 = 37. There are often many different ways to do calculations mentally. Children need to experience different ways so that they can develop a range of mental strategies.
  • Use online maths games. In this world of technology kids are keen to learn online as the feedback can be instantaneous. There are numerous sights suitable for children learning subtraction at school with concepts being reinforced through games. This UK website is a great start


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This article was written by Michelle Barrington for Kidspot, New Zealand's leading education resource for parents. Michelle is a teacher and mother of a toddler who blogs at Gee, You're Brave.

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