Playing with marbles to practice addition and subtraction

Quick game that my daughter Rosie and I played earlier this morning. She truly fully enjoyed it, so I thought I should share it right away.


– 2 bowls

– 20-30 marbles

– 3 blank dice :

  • 2 dice marked with 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 (I used dots, but numerals would be an alternative)
  • 1 die marked with the sign + on 3 sides and the sign – on the other 3 sides


How to play:

– I am the Marble Keeper, I have all the marbles in a bowl. Rosie starts with an empty bowl. The goal? Get all the marbles to become the next Marble Keeper.

Rosie rolls the dice, and gets 2 numerals (e.g. 2 and 3) and 1 + or  – (e.g. +). She makes part of the equation out of them (i.e. 2 + 3) and provides the answer. She asks the Marble Keeper the number of marbles she needs to check her answer (e.g. 5). If the answer is correct, she puts the marbles in her bowl.

Rosie keeps playing until she gets all the marbles and becomes the Marble Keeper.

As I said: quite simple. But the simpler, the better, right?

What I like about it:

– The game can easily be differentiated depending on the child’s level (add a third die, play with upper numbers, write numerals instead of dots, etc.)

– Without noticing it, Rosie strengthens her fluency with adding and subtracting.

– By checking her answer with the marbles, she also models what adding and subtracting is about. Quite helpful at a young age to build up strong foundations in operations. For instance:

  • with adding 3+2, she starts with 3 in one hand, then 2 in the other, and puts them all together to get 5
  • when subtracting 3 – 2, she starts with 3 in one hand, and takes away 2 to have 1 left in her hand.

– The game is quick, Rosie does not get bored, as she sees her bowl filling up regularly.

– Finally, I found it quite interesting to see Rosie pause the first time she got the – sign and say “2-5? How could I do that?”. Since Rosie has never been introduced to negative numbers, and I am not sure she is quite there yet (see my post When a child learns best), we decided that we would subtract the smaller number (e.g. 2) to the higher number (e.g. 5) and solve the equation (e.g. 5 – 2 = ?). But this game may provide a fun opportunity to introduce negative numbers ? Need to think a little bit more about that.

Enjoy !

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