5 Little Monkeys Beginning Subtraction

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SWBAT use pictures and a math mat, along with the popular finger play, to solve introductory subtraction problems.

Big Idea

Young children love fun finger plays, and they solve as a great way to open the door to the basics of subtraction.

Attention Grabber/Introduction

10 minutes

Our week of finger plays to begin our subtraction studies continues! We have loved “5 Little Monkeys” since July!

We begin with our song, 5 Little Monkeys, with all kinds of pizzazz and little details. For one thing, we fan out our fingers and then swing the fanned fingers slightly below to show monkeys. For the teasing Mr. Alligator part, we all take our hands to the sides of our faces, as if we are teasing the alligator. For the “Can’t catch me!” line, we take our thumbs and point back at ourselves.

This is the really fun part, but we get super quiet, pretending we are the alligator, sneaking up on the monkeys. We almost whisper, “Along comes Mr. Alligator quiet as can be—and SNAP!!! That monkey right out of that tree!” The SNAP! Is the loudest clap we can get in the middle of the song, and we almost yell the last words, “that monkey right out of that tree!”

We sing the song, and immediately tie in math words. In the beginning of the song, for instance, we say, “5 take away 1 is 4…” focusing on the math words (or vocabulary) that accompany our familiar song.

Guided Practice

30 minutes

After we work through the entire song/finger play, I show a coconut tree mat and monkeys, (downloaded so gratefully from Mrs. Ricca’s wonderful free, adorable resources), to practice subtraction, or “take away.”  A hand shoots up and asks, “Do we get to practice with the monkeys?” and I confirm that yes, we do!

The kiddos joyfully go to their tables to begin coloring and cutting out monkeys, and coloring their math mats. (Some of the stuff gets pretty colorful, but the kiddos have ownership of their math supplies, which is important.)

We begin with our 5 monkeys, swinging in our coconut trees, and then we show one finger before snapping down 1 monkey from our tree, (MP.5) noting that each time the alligator “snaps” a monkey out of the tree, we are taking 1 away. Kiddos note that each time 1 is snapped out, the number of monkeys left is 1 less than before—we take a moment to both tie the finger play to the process of subtraction each time, but we also note the pattern of “1 less” (MP.7) as we playfully practice our finger play and our subtraction.

Once this is complete, we mix it up a bit. I ask our helper of the day to roll a number cube, and we take the number rolled out of our tree to show, or model subtraction (MP.4). Our first roll shows a ‘’3,” so we slide 3 monkeys down out of our coconut trees, showing and saying, “5 take away 3 is 2.”

As we have our helper up on “the big screen” showing subtraction up front, every student Is modeling on his or her personal math mat, so we have hands-on (and minds-on) practice for all.

We keep practice moving, rewarding hard-working students by inviting them up front to roll the number cube and get the next round of practice going. Each time, we begin with monkeys up in our coconut trees, and we slide the monkeys out of the tree. (Sure, some more energetic kiddos tend to “snap” the monkeys out, as if their hands are alligators, but they’re quite accurate as they snap the exact number rolled out. MP.5) The key during this, and all group practice, is pacing and circulation—keeping the practice moving so that no child has an opportunity to become distracted or off-task, but at the same time, having mobility to check that each child in class is accurately (MP.6) modeling subtraction at this foundational level.  


5 minutes

As we wrap up our subtraction practice, the students clip their monkey counters to their coconut tree mats, so that we can “teach” our families how to do subtraction with our counters and our mats. Students note that they liked rolling the number cube, and it was “fun” to “feed the alligator 4 or 5 monkeys—especially for our friends who tended to “snap” the monkeys out of the tree, which I fully encourage—as long as students can accurately show subtraction. One student thoughtfully notes, “I thought take away was supposed to be hard! This is fun!”