Teaching place value can be a bit cut and dry. It’s one of those math concepts that are necessary to teach to understand the other ideas that get taught the rest of the year. It’s foundational for many other concepts, such as using the operations, decimals, and fractions. What activities can we do to help engage our students, so they both understand place value and are engaged?
Engaging Students When Teaching Place Value
I have a variety of activities that I like to use when I’m teaching place value in my classroom. While it is important to have students practice and practice, I’d recommend more than just worksheets. The overuse of worksheets is not beneficial for anyone, and while it would help reinforce the skill, it’s not engaging. Instead, consider these engaging activities below that could be used in an upper elementary classroom.
1.) Manipulatives. I have to start with manipulatives. It is one of the most beneficial and engaging ways to help students understand place value. I use base-ten blocks to help students understand both whole numbers and decimals. I like to help students see the patterns as they move along the place value chart.
2.) Online Manipulatives. As I mentioned in my post Teaching Math So Students Get It, you have to start with the concrete and then move to the representational, and finally the abstract. Online manipulatives are perfect for the representational stage! My favorite site is from the Math Learning Center. My students love to be on technology, and this is the perfect way to both engage and make sure they are practicing place value.
3.) Visit MegaPenny. To help my students grasp just how large numbers can get, I like to visit a website called MegaPenny. On this site, you start small and work your way up with various images and large numbers using a penny. For instance, it begins with one penny, then shows you 16, and moves into 1,000, working its way up to one quintillion pennies. As you work through each image, it gives an explanation to help you understand its size when stacked along with information regarding its value, width, height, thickness, weight, and area when laid flat. You’ve got to check this site out (but not yet. I’ve got more ideas!). My students LOVE it!
4.) Make it interactive. Any time I teach math, I always find a way to make it interactive. For instance, I may provide a slider such as this place value slider I have my students use in third grade:
Or this place value house we used when we were discussing reading place value names in 4th:
Or this place value kite in 5th:
Or in this example, where we took a worksheet and made it interactive:
5.) Use food. Yes, bring food in or talk about food. One of the things that I have found works for my kiddos is when I talk about chicken. I introduce the one’s place as a chicken nugget. I introduce the ten’s place as a chicken fry (or chicken tender if you prefer) and the hundred’s place as a chicken patty. The analogy helps students (and makes me hungry).
6.) Use games. I love games. I firmly believe that games are a great way to have students learn, be motivated, and be engaged. I include games in each of my math units and place value is no exception!
You can have students play dice games – such as having them roll dice and try to create the smallest number possible. Then once it’s created, have them write it in written form, expanded form, or any other way you desire. Have students collect points each time they do it correctly along with a point for having the smallest number created. In my class, I call this the Place Value Relay Game.
Another game your students could play is target practice. Students would draw a card with a number on it and try to build a number as close to the card number (target number) as possible. The person that gets closest to it wins.
My students also love Placing the M&M’s. In this game, students practice identifying the place values in the hand based on the key (for instance the yellow M&M’s represent the thousands place) and then have to find the total. It’s a game that I’m always being asked to play over and over.
It could even be something as simple as creating puzzle pieces with the written form, expanded form, standard form, and base-ten images.
or placing it on a number line to order it:
7.) Use read-aloud picture books. Just because you are teaching math, doesn’t mean you can’t bring some literature into it! There are some great titles out there that focus on place value! Check out these books (aff. links):
- The King’s Commissioners (Aileen Friedman)
- How Much is a Million? (David M. Schwartz)
- One Grain of Rice (Helena Clare Pittman)
- A Place for Zero (Angeline Sparagna LoPresti)
- A Million Dots (Andrew Clements)
- Earth Day Hooray (Stuart J. Murphy)
- Millions of Cats (Wanda Gag)
- On Beyond a Million (David M. Schwartz)
- Millions, Billions, and Trillions (David Alder)
- Count to a Million (Jerry Pallotta)
- Big Numbers (and Pictures that Show Just How Big They Are) (Edward Packard)
8.) Use task cards. Task cards are perfect for centers, early finishers, or even just a quick review. I have a set of task cards called Slime Ball Riddles that I love to pull out because they are challenging to my students. I love anything that can get them to think. For instance, one might say:
“I have 4 hundreds, 12 tens, and 6 ones. Who am I?”
or I may have one that says:
“I am 45. I have twenty-five ones. How many tens do I have?”
Of course, you can do other task cards besides the riddles. There are a variety of task cards on Teachers Pay Teachers, including my Place Value Concentration which is located in my Place Value Resource Pack.
9.) Use foldables. What kiddo doesn’t love foldables? They are engaging and can be used to help students understand place value concepts. For instance, I use foldables when teaching expanded form such as in this example:
Or when I’m teaching about the different places and the sizes of those places, such as in this pop-up place value chart (that if you turn the other direction will appear the same direction as the place value chart). You can download this free by clicking here.
I also use foldables to check their work or to reinforce concepts, such as in this example below.
10.) Check out my Math Workshop Units. My math workshop units start with a concrete foundation and progress to an abstract level, scaffolding along the way. Each unit is packed full of engaging games, foldables, and interactive activities that are sure to help your students understand and be successful with place value. I have place value workshop units for 3rd grade, place value for larger numbers for 4th grade, and place value of decimals in 5th. Each place value unit includes scripted, thorough, detailed lesson plans (that include intervention and extension ideas). They each also explore rounding. They are common core aligned and have helped thousands of teachers! You can find them here on my website and on Teachers Pay Teachers. What are you waiting for? Check them out! 🙂
Of course, you can definitely make these items yourself, but if you’re looking to save yourself hours of time, you can check out everything you need on this page by clicking here to view all of my place value resources!