Making paper math chains can be fun

Remember those paper chains you made for holidays? They are more than just a decoration. They are a useful tool for counting and teaching addition and subtraction with your young children. For more math fun see

What to do

Using a ruler and scissors, measure and cut strips of paper that are 1 inch wide and 8 inches long. Each child should have about 10-20 links.

Tape or staple the ends of the first strip together to form a loop. Using glue is not recommended. Place the second strip of paper through the first loop and join the ends together. Continue adding links until the desired length is reached.

Start addition

Begin the activity with reading a counting book such as “Over on the Farm, Counting Picture Book Rhyme” by Christopher Gunson. Then count together from one to ten one fingers. Give children their first paper link. Ask how many links they have. Say the number one. Add another link, ask how many, and say the number two. Ask your children to explain what happened in their own words. It may sound like this: “I had one link and I put on another one and now there are two.”

Ask them to use the word “add” when putting on the next link. “I had one link and I added one more. Now I have two links in my chain.” Continue in this way until you reach the number ten. Ask your children what they notice as they continue to add on links one at a time.

Each time they add one link, they count to the next number.

Teaching subtraction

Follow the same format for taking away one link at a time from the paper chain. Use the word “subtract” in place of “take away.” Help them to discover that subtracting one link at a time is the same as counting backwards. With older children you may wish to write out the number sentence using +, -, and = signs.

Make another paper chain of six. Hold it vertically. Sing “Five Little Ducks Went Out One Day,” removing one link at time following the song lyrics. The song and short animation is on You Tube. Don’t worry. The ducks disappear, but it has a happy ending.

Set out a plate with up to ten food items like berries or cereal. Make up your own song patterned after the duck song as you eat and the food disappears.

Vary the activity by using blocks, coins, or toys. Enjoy other counting books such as “Fish Eyes” by Lois Ehlert which includes the word “plus” and “Counting Crocodiles” by Judy Sierra. This Asian folktale includes counting forward and backward.

Paper chains can also help also help subtract days until a big event.

Editor’s note: Grandparents Teach ,Too is a non profit organization of elementary and preschool teachers from Marquette, Michigan. Writers include: Jan Sabin, Mary Davis, Jean Hetrick, Cheryl Anderegg, Esther Macalady, Colleen Walker, Fran Darling, and Iris Katers.Their mission since 2009 is to help parents, grandparents, and other caregivers of young children provide fun activities to help prepare young children for school and a life long love of learning. They are supported by Great Start, Parent Awareness of Michigan (PAM), Upper Peninsula Association for the Education of Young Children (UPAEYC), Northern Michigan School of Education, U.P. Children’s Museum, and NMU Center for Economic Education.