12 Exciting Subtraction Activities for Engaging Learning

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Once a child learns to count, adding and subtracting is not far behind. Manipulating numbers is how we make math work for us. But cementing that understanding with your students is a tricky task.

Bringing a few engaging classroom games and fun activities for students can help them learn how to work with numbers. And once they can add and subtract, they’re set up for a whole world of math learning.

Let’s explore some of the best methods for teaching subtraction!

Why teaching subtraction is more challenging than teaching addition

Up to this point, numbers have always gone up. When kids learn to count, they start with one, counting up until they reach the correct number of objects. And learning to add in the early years is often just more counting up.

Then subtraction comes along and students may have never thought about numbers going back down. Subtraction requires a stronger number sense than addition. But once your students have a concrete understanding of number values and plenty of addition and subtraction practice, they’ll morph into master math manipulators!

Classroom subtraction games for beginner learners

Gamified learning is one of the best ways to help math concepts stick. Here are a few of our favorite classroom subtraction games.

1. Play a classroom game of around the world

Kindergarten and early elementary students love a challenge. Play into their competitiveness with the classic classroom game — Around the World.

Have your class sit in a circle on the floor and invite a student to stand behind one of their classmates. Then provide a subtraction equation for these two students to solve (flashcards work great for this game). The first student to answer wins that round, and then travels to the next student in the circle.

Can someone make it all the way around? Try it to find out!

2. Make a human number line

Get their bodies moving while practicing subtraction with this fun game! Print out some numbers and place them on the floor. Then tape off your large number line.

Have each student choose an equation card, and invite them to act it out on their new, human-sized number line. They can hop, skip or jump their way to the correct answer before passing the cards on the next learner.

3. ​Set up some subtraction bowling

Bowling is a favorite activity, and super simple to pull together for your classroom. Grab a play bowling set, or set up plastic cups or paper towel rolls. Then bring a ball and bowl.

Have your students note how many ‘pins’ are standing up before each roll. Then count how many they knock over, and solve to determine how many are still standing. This helps students visualize subtraction. And they’ll have a blast bowling in class!

4. Pair students off for a subtraction card game

If you have a deck of cards, you can create a game! Have your students grab a friend and play a competitive subtraction game. Each player flips over two cards, then quickly subtracts the numbers (being sure to subtract the smaller number from the larger). Then the player with their difference closest to zero keeps all four cards.

The play continues from there until there are no cards left to turn over. And the player with the most cards collected at the end wins.

Want to add an extra challenge? Instead of luck of the draw, have the student that correctly solves their card equation first keep the cards. This works great for older students that already have a concrete grasp of the basics.

5. Try singing songs as a class

Songs have a way of helping concepts click, and there are many great songs that involve subtraction. ‘Five Little Monkeys’ is always a favorite. And ‘Five Little Speckled Frogs’ is another fun choice.

Bonus — these make great songs to act out with finger puppets or cardboard characters. By both singing the songs and watching them play out, your students will soon develop a solid grasp of subtraction.

Individual and small group activities

Engaging activities can keep your students happily practicing tricky subtraction concepts until they stick. Try these favorite activities to bring more fun to their math practice.

1. Try play dough smash

Play dough is a great tool to have in your classroom. Not only does it help your students strengthen their hands to prepare for writing tasks, but it’s also a great math manipulative.

In this fun activity, create ten frames using tape on each student’s desk. Then dole out your play dough. Students can create 10 play dough balls, filling in their ten frame. Then share subtraction equations, and ask them to SMASH the balls as they subtract them.

Your students will love working with the play dough, getting silly as they smash. Then they can roll out new balls and start again, learning all the while.

2. Give students task cards to work through

Task cards combined with small manipulatives are a great way to encourage independent learning practice. Each task card gives your students a series of equations to work through, with instructions for how to solve them.

Ask them to work them out on their fingers, with small objects, or have them create their own equations with a dice roll. As they solve one small stack, they can swap with friends to start on a new set with a different challenge!

3. Dole out toys so students can practice regrouping

Regrouping is a great strategy for dealing with higher value addition and subtraction. And seeing this strategy at work with sets of toys can help solidify the concept.

Legos and other connecting blocks, or toys that you can bundle, are great choices for demonstrating regrouping. Use this method to give your students a stronger understanding of place value and the role it plays in manipulating numbers.

4. Distribute toy money so students can 'buy' items

Kids love working with money! By this age, they are beginning to understand the value of money, and how it can be used to buy some of their favorite things (like toys and candy). Bring that fun to school by setting up a classroom shop.

Break out your toy register and set up some stickers or treats for students to purchase. Then help them figure out their change as they buy their favorite things. This is a great real-world application of subtraction that students love to play.

5. Utilize online games and resources

Online games and resources are some of the best ways to differentiate your students’ learning. Each child can work on exactly what they need while you provide individual attention as needed.

Stay on top of their learning needs with Prodigy Math. Your students will love playing this fantastical online game while they practice math strategies.

Prodigy’s free teacher dashboard helps you keep up with what they’re mastering and discover where they still need extra practice. Minimize your grading time and maximize their learning with a little help from Prodigy!

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Classic subtraction activities to reinforce understanding

Games and new activities are fun, but sometimes the classic practice options are best. Bring these activities to your classroom to help your students master subtraction.

1. Create word problems with classroom objects

Though many people remember word problems as some of the scarier moments in math, they are actually a great way to help abstract concepts come to life. The trick is to pair word problems with real-life objects.

Choose blocks, pencils, stickers, or anything else you have around the classroom to create your word problems. Write them up on the board, then act them out. If Amber has 8 stickers and James asks for 3, how many will Amber have left? Distribute the stickers and discover the answer together!

2. Hand out worksheets for extra practice

Worksheets may not be a favorite activity, but the practice they provide is valuable. Keep worksheets a little more interesting by giving space for your students to draw out the problems.

If it’s a word problem about pizza, encourage them to illustrate it, being sure to add their favorite toppings. If we’re talking apples and oranges, throw some crayons in the mix to keep them all straight. Even worksheets can be fun with a few extras.