Ten Base Block Activity DIY - Play Discover Learn 24/7

Ten Base Block Activity DIY

An easy Math DIY for addition, subtraction and More.

Okay, I know I trashed those DIY videos in a recent post, but this ten base block DIY is worth doing. It is thoughtful, meaningful and endless fun.  We aren't making a DIY to be scattered across the room by an angry toddler. 

It is the Ten Base Block Equation Machine. I saw a DIY the other day running around on Facebook and I found some fundamental flaws. But rather than complain about it, I sought to solve it.

You may have seen it. It is where students move numbers and symbols written on slices of pool noodles to create an equation. Here is the biggest flaw. It provided the student no way to verify the accuracy of their equation.

I could just see my kids building nonsensical equations and not really seeing the point in the machine. Oh, you wanted them to use paper to figure out the answer. Oh, that is laughable.

We’ve already gone this far. Couldn’t we come up with something that doesn’t involve writing to verify the accuracy of their equation?

Verifying Equations without Writing

I love Cuisenaire rods because it is a hands-on math manipulative that allows children to test and discover ideas on their own.  Any Ten Base block will do though.  I just happen to be in love with Cuisenaire Rods (hello, cheaper and cuter).  I decided to take this math DIY idea I saw floating around Facebook and make it better with Cuisenaire Rods.

Using letters and symbols, children can begin creating equations. The letters represent the color of the rods.  The symbols are your everyday math symbols, plus, minus, equal, greater than, less than, etc.  Children learn that letters represent the color of the rods.  They learn that symbols tell them how to build the equation.  Example: Does red plus a light green really equal yellow? Let’s build and find out.

Hands on activity that involves no writing

The great thing is writing is completely eliminated. Writing is one of the biggest obstacles children have to overcome when it comes to math instruction. Young children are deprived of their natural ability to discover math because adults have this crazy idea everything must be written down to be understood.

However, when is the last time you wrote down instructions to picking up toys and handed it to your child? Probably never and you don’t need to. In fact, it doesn’t make sense. Instead, you tell them, you show them and then you let them give it a go.

DIY Instructions


  • 2 Small Pool Noodles of different colors
  • Knife 
  • Cutting Board
  • Black Sharpie
  • Mounted Paper Towel Holder
  • Foam brush
  • Modge Podge Sealer


Directions for Math DIY for fun hands on math
Using Mod Podge to make the writing last

Using a sharp knife, cut the pool noodles into 1 inch slices. Cut as many as you need. I used 3 of one color and 4 of the other color in this design.

Using a sharpie, write desired symbols on one color tube. Write letters to represent the color rods on another color tube. Depending on your ten base blocks, the letters you choose will vary. 

After writing on the noodle slices, I noticed that with very little effort, the permanent marker wasn't quite so permanent.  I decided to dip a foam brush into some Mod Podge to seal the writing on the noodle slices. I am sure any kind of Mod Podge would work and I wonder if even hairspray would do it. ??  

To justify the work of DIY, make it last.

Next, the noodle slices need a home. That was the other flaw to this math DIY running around on Facebook. There was no suitable home. They just rolled up some paper and slid the noodle slices on.  

What were they thinking?  If I am going to take the time out to do a DIY, it better last more than one day. In fact, it better last a year. Ideally, I want it to last several years.

Rolling up a piece of paper to hold the noodle slices was just not going to work. Can you just see the paper crushed in a sword fight and the slices of noodles strewn about the house? No sir.

This rod equation machine had to have a real home. That is why I used a mounted paper towel holder. I got this one at a Walmart for just 12 bucks. I can mount this to a wall, to a desk or keep unmounted for portability. Road trip, maybe?

Algebra before Arithmetic

Where are the numbers? Okay, I know those letters scare you. These letters represent the colors of the rods. This helps kids focus on the math structure first. They will easily move into numbers in due time.

In the meantime, wait until your child shows off their interesting equation and can verify it using Ten Base Blocks. You are going to be glad you did away with the numbers. Plus, this sense of accomplishment is gold for a child. It is sure to begin a serious love for math.

How to Use The Rod Equation Machine

If your child has no experience with Ten Base Blocks, teach them to build equations using the rods. Then, side by side with building, teach them to describe their creation using mathematical language.

You may just want to focus on addition and subtraction and leave off the multiplication and the division symbols. This is perfectly fine.

Building and Describing Addition using cuisenaire rods for context.
Building and describing Subtraction using Cuisenaire rods provides context.

Building an addition equation using rods is placing the rods end to end with the blocks below of the same length. We describe it as red plus a purple equals light green plus light green. Speaking math takes practice but Ten Base Blocks provide children context for the language making it easier to pick up.

Building a subtraction equation is placing the shorter rod above the longer rod. Then the child finds the missing rod that makes the shorter rod the same length as the longer rod. We describe this as yellow minus a green equals red. See easy peasey.

Love the Idea But Maybe It Scares Me

If you are intimidated by building and describing Ten Base Blocks through mathematical language, I encourage you to check out my easy and FREE 12 weeks of Early Math Discovery Course. Through one lesson a week, your child will be gently immersed into the language of math in way that appeals to your child’s sense of play and love of picture books.

Extending the Rod Equation Machine

Eventually, you can extend the Ten Base Block Equation Machine by adding in multiplication, division and even fractions. This opens the door for endless building and exploring new math ideas.   The best part, they can test their own ideas with very little help from you. 

In the comments below, tell me about a recent educational DIY that you just loved! And as always, I love when you share my posts, it encourages me and lets me know I am providing you real value.

Lacy | Play Discover Learn 24/7

Knowing the best kind of learning comes from a highly motivated internal drive, Lacy Coker cultivates tools and resources that help to make learning for young children playful and self-directed.

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