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A Visual Approach to Teaching Place Value in Kindergarten

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There’s no doubt about the importance of teaching place value in kindergarten. Taking the time to ensure students have a solid understanding of this concept will dictate future success. But… have you ever tried to teach place value to young students and found it to be rather difficult? Yep, me too! It’s like instead of lightbulbs going off, you’re met with a “deer in headlights” look. Or, you get a confident answer that is wrong. This is a tricky concept, but over the years I’ve crafted the BEST way to teach it! If you’re ready to make place value fun and engaging, come along to see my visual approach to teaching this essential math concept!

A hands-on and visual approach to teaching place value in kindergarten

It All Starts With Place Value!

At the beginning of every school year, schools all over are focused on place value. Why? Place value is a foundational skill that is used for the rest of the year! Students must understand numbers and what they represent in order to understand other math concepts. So, we must include place value in kindergarten to set our students up for success!

Young children often learn to count using their fingers.  Continuing the use of a visual is helpful as they learn place value.

Place value refers to the value of a digit according to its place in a number such as ones, tens, hundreds, and so on. In the primary grades, we begin by focusing on ones, tens, and eventually hundreds.

When students come to you, they are likely familiar with counting by ones up to ten or twenty but anything beyond that is likely brand new. Many young children learn to count using their fingers as a visual support. So continuing in a visual way as you introduce place value concepts is important.

Because of this, I make sure to weave a variety of visuals into our number sense activities from the very beginning. Working with a place value chart, tally marks, ten frames, and drawing sets are just some of the ways we learn to represent numbers.

Teaching Ten with a Visual Approach

This is how I set up my place value area using different size ziplock bags.

When it comes to teaching place value in kindergarten, very few students, if any, will have been exposed to the concepts. So it is important to introduce and teach place value concepts and help students master this foundational skill. I like to weave place value concepts into teaching each number.

Setting Up

I start by setting up a place value chart on the board that includes ones and tens. It will eventually grow to hundreds but not until later in the year. So for now, ones and tens is perfect. Under the ones column, I put a small, snack size, ziplock bag. Under the tens column, I put a gallon size ziplock bag. I like to use the freezer bag in the gallon size because it is a little thicker and will hold the weight better, and I like that it has a different color at the top. It just adds to the visual of the tens being different than the ones.

I keep a basket of small manipulatives near this area too. You can use anything you’d like, buttons, mini erasers, counting cubes, just make sure that 10 of them will fit inside your snack size bag. These manipulatives will be dedicated to this chart so don’t plan on them being available for student use.

Getting Started

Start by adding one cube to the ones bag each day as you introduce the number and what it represents

When you begin introducing numbers in your morning meeting or math block it is time to put your visual place value chart to work. At the beginning of the year, I do this during our math mini-lesson, and later it moves into our morning meeting.

Each day as you introduce your number, add 1 manipulative to the ones bag. I like to write the number in the ones column too. Then count the number of manipulatives together to reinforce the number and model 1 to 1 correspondence. For numbers 1 – 9 this will be the focus. But wait – it gets exciting when you reach number 10!

When we reach number 10 make sure to plan a few extra minutes for your lesson. This will be the first time your kids have seen the Base 10 system in action. I begin by adding one block to my snack bag to make ten. Then I write the number 10 in the ones column, followed by an “Uh-oh!” as I teach my students that you cannot write two digits in one column. I model for them how we write the 1 in the tens column and a 0 in the ones column.

Once you have a set of 10 you move the entire snack bag over.

Next, I draw students’ attention to the number and the columns. I ask them to tell me how many ones are in this number. Inevitably, they all shout out “TEN!!!” but then I ask them to look again. I point out the one’s column and the number 0 that is above it. After a pause, I explain that ten is a magic number. When we get a set of 10 we get to move it! Then we do just that with our bag. We count the manipulatives to make sure we have ten. Then we seal it up and move it over to the tens column. The snack baggie with the 10 manipulatives goes inside the gallon bag. Last, I add a new, empty snack bag to the ones column.

Next, we look at the number 10 again and I ask my students how many ones there are. This time they are excited to tell me “ZERO!!!” I reinforce this and then ask “How many sets of 10 are in this number?” and they always tell me “ONE!” I pull out the small zip-lock bag for a quick count, and then reply Yes, just one set of ten.” This visual is a game-changer for the students! They can hardly contain their excitement once they begin to understand the magic of the place value chart and “transforming” ones into sets of ten.

Continued Practice with Place Value

After this introduction, it is time for some individual, hands-on practice. I give each student a place value mat, some manipulatives, a snack bag, and a gallon bag. Then we practice building numbers. Not only does this activity give us practice making and moving sets of ten, but we also have a chance to practice all the other numbers we learned.  

This image shows a young student building towers with unifix cubes in order to represent numbers.

I will call out a number, write it on the board, and then have students build it. I can walk around the room and see how each student is doing. When we get to our first ten, I look to see that students have made a set of ten in the snack bag and then moved it over to the gallon bag. After a set of ten I say “Reset!” and everyone separates their supplies so we can start again.

I will generally do the first round in order starting with one and ending with ten. But after that, we mix it up and do the numbers out of order. Not only does this help reinforce each number, but it gives students lots of practice with counting and 1 to 1 correspondence.

We will do this hands-on practice for a few days, and then again when we hit 20, 30, 40, 100. I will also move this activity into our center rotation. I use all the same supplies and add a stack of number cards for the numbers we have learned.

More than anything else I have done, this visual place value method has helped my students understand teen numbers. This process not only allows me to teach the value of ten, but it also allows us to focus on the idea of having ten and some more. 

Introducing Hundreds

Later in the year I add a jumbo bag to represent the hundreds.

When we start working on numbers in the 90s, I will add the hundreds column to the chart. I like to do this a few days early because it sure builds excitement. Students remember our lesson from the beginning of the year and know that something big is about to happen.

For the hundreds column, I like to use a Ziploc Big Bag. They come in a variety of sizes and I find that for kindergarten the Large size works well. If you were going to use this method with multiple hundreds you might want a slightly larger bag.

When the magical day arrives and you get to move your set of 10 tens over, there will be lots of excitement. I question my students as we walk through the process, but this time they are quick to catch on. They have, after all, been working on moving sets of ten for a while now.

Fine Tuning Your Place Value Teaching Method

A place value, some maniuplatives and number cards are all you need to practice this visual place value approach.

I have found this visualization process to be very effective in both teaching and practice. Not only for understanding our Base Ten system but also for using it again and again throughout the year! You can even send home baggies and counting mats for students to use with their parents. The more practice they get with this system, the more likely they are to have a firm understanding of place value.

After students have a good grasp on this with manipulatives, then I introduce place value blocks.  Sometimes switching out of ten ones for a ten rod can be confusing for students. This is why I always start with some other type of manipulative and create sets of tens in the zip-lock bag first. But once your students are ready to move on, you can add these in and repeat the process! As you work through this approach, you’ll get a feel for how your students are progressing and be able to fine-tune accordingly.

Get Started Teaching Place Value in Kindergarten and First Grade

Does this method sound like something your students would enjoy? I hope so! This was a total game-changer in my classroom! Once I started teaching this way, my students caught on so quickly. As a teacher who has seen those confused faces staring back at me, I was thrilled to have crafted a visual approach to teach place value with ease! Give this a try in your primary classroom and see what it can do for your students too!

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When teaching place value, it can be extremely helpful to take a visual approach! In this post, I take you step by step through how I teach place value by showing students a visual representation of ones, tens and hundreds without using place value blocks. This hands-on, visual model really helps students understand place value in kindergarten and first grade.

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