What Is A Ten Frame? Examples, Games, Theory, Ideas

Ten frames are really popular now in early education, and with good reason.

They provide a really simple framework for children to develop lots of different maths skills, including counting, adding, number bonds, patterns, creating arrays, subetising, and many more!

Ten frames are really good for children to start visualising maths in lots of different ways! But what is a ten frame?

A ten frame is a grid of ten boxes, with two rows of five columns each. It is a visual framework in which you can place objects or counters to represent many maths concepts.

Ten frames can be used just as easily at home, as well as at school, preschool or nursery.

But how do they work? What’s the big idea? How do you introduce them? How can you make them? What games can you play with them?

So many questions, but this blog hopefully provides so many answers. Read on to find out the full definitive guide to everything you would ever want to know about ten frames.

What A Ten Frame Is

A ten frame is simply a grid of 2 by 5 squares. Here is what they look like:

What’s The Point Of Ten Frames?

Our numbers system is based around the number ten.

This is because humans have ten fingers. The number system that the modern world uses was first an ancient one, originating in India.

If humans had 6 fingers, our number system would have been based around 6.

However, we don’t – we have ten! And so ten is the basis of the number system. Therefore, it is very important that children begin to understand numbers in the context of ten.

In reality, this means that for example it is good for them to see what a four looks like in reference to ten. For example, check out this picture:

This is quite simply four stones on a ten frame. Children can see that four is quite a bit smaller than ten, as there are lots of empty spaces. You might be even able to see that four is less than half of ten, because there are more than four empty spaces.

Also children can see the different ways you can make four in the context of ten. The above could be one way, but the stones could be put in one line, or four at the end.

All these things create pictures in the children’s heads – and mathematicians think in pictures!

Ten frames grew out of extensive researh in the 1980s. (Source)

How To Introduce Them

It is important to introduce them in an engaging way.

Ten frames do take a bit of adult modelling before you can really use them. I have tried letting children just explore ten frames independently, but they often just end up dumping a load of random objects onto them.

A bit of scaffolding and starting the process can help them get going.

You can create ten frames in all sorts of ways. I like to use natural ones, such as the ones I have painted onto logs or wood slices. Natural ten frames are great to use outside. If you want to find out 50 exciting maths games outdoors then check this out.

A nice start is a game like ‘Make the number’. You get something like stones or shells, and try to make a number, e.g. 3. There are so many ways you can make three!

Another good one to start them with is have two different kinds of objects with the ten frame. You simply get them to fill the ten frame up with the two kinds of objects. They will have made a number bond. Even if they have no idea what a number bond is (which is very likely) it just starts the process, and creates images in their minds.

How To Make Ten Frames

There are all sorts of ten frames you can create. Some good ideas include:

• Draw them with permanent marker on whiteboards. Then the children can draw pictures in the boxes, or write symbols.
• Create laminated ones that they can use with counters or loose parts
• Make natural ones out of wood slices or logs (my personal favourite). Here’s a ten frame I painted onto a tree stump:
• Use things like a piece of material or sheet. These are great for picking up and taking outside.
• Use lolly (popsicle) sticks glued together to make a frame. These are excellent to use with things like coloured stones or gems to make different arrays.
• Chalk them on the floor outside
• Spray paint them on the grass!
• Use egg boxes! You can actually get egg boxes with ten sections which are perfect. Alternatively, you can cut a larger egg box so that it just has ten.
• Use things like ten buckets in a grid
• Ten plant pots can be put in a ten-frame shape
• You can draw them on huge pieces of paper outside
• You can cut up things like an old trellis

These really are jus the tip of the ice-berg as well. If you want to find out more about some of these ideas, then check out my article Ten Frames – Twenty Ways to Make And Use Them. There are so many ways of making ten frames. Now to the real nitty-gritty – how to use them!

What Skills Can You Teach With Ten Frames?

There really are a huge number of skills that you can teach, including:

Number bonds

Number bonds a certainly a growlingly important part of the early years curriculum in Britain, and I hear around the world.

Ten frames are one of the best ways for young children to engage and experiment with number bonds.

You can use many different kinds of things with them. For example, you could use painted stones. Here are some coloured stones we used to make number bonds. Here is 5 add 5:

These are just small pebbles painted with acrylic paint. They are supposed to be zebras and tigers!

You don’t really need to go to all that trouble though (although they are really beautiful!) You could just use things like leaves and sticks. It could be a number bond of four sticks and six leaves for example, a great way to represent ten.

You can get older children to create practical number bonds on a ten frame and then record the number sentences in some way.

Patterns

Many children don’t really get colour patterns. If there is something going red, blue, red, blue, they sometimes just don’t see it.

Ten frames offer a framework to build patterns with random objects or loose parts.

For example, have a selection of bottle tops and shells, along with a ten frame. Children can explore different types of patterns, such as shell, bottle top, shell, bottle top…

To extend this, you can try any of the following:

1. Have three different types of objects
2. Have two objects, but use more complex patterns, e.g. two shells, one bottle top
3. Complete a friend’s pattern
4. Copy a friend’s pattern

Again, all you need for this is two sets of objects and a ten frame. For example, you could have a sheet frame, and one set of buttons and one set of gems.

Roll two dice and see what you get, e.g. 5 add 2. Try to make it on the ten frame.

Older children can try to record the number sentence. It is good to explore the different ways that you can practically make the same number sentence.

Counting

This is really simple, but good for multiple skills.

One good way to do it is roll a dice. Whatever you get, (e.g. 4), make that number on the ten frame.

It really is that simple!

Rote counting is a core foundation skill of early maths. If you want to find out what rote counting is and how to teach it, then check out this article.

Arrays

An extension from the above counting game, is to create different arrays of the same number.

For example, 5 can be made in multiple different ways on the frame. See how imaginative or ‘crazy’ you can be.

Subitizing

This term just means being able to ‘see’ how many of something there is without counting the quantity. For example, if you roll a dice and get a four you don’t need to count it. You just recognize the array.

Experimenting with ten-frames is great for this. You get to fill up with mental pictures of what numbers look like in different physical formations.

You can play a game such as where you quickly show children ten-frames with different quantities on them, and get them to write down what they saw.

There are several dice games you can read all about in my essential guide to maths circle time games, including 20 ideas.

Ordering

This beautiful trellis ten-frame with some number stones in it is a fantastic example of how you could explore ordering:

You just need some kind of numbers to put in order. The ten-frame provides an excellent framework to order them in.

By the way, this trellis frame was really simple to make, but will last for years. I got a trellis from a hardware store and sawed it up into different arrays. I made a ten frame, but I also made a five frame, an adding frame and some other arrays as well. Simple but natural and beautiful.

1.Leaves V Stones!

This is probably my number one ten frame game!

You basically need two children for this one, although you could have more split up into two teams if you wanted.

One child (or team) will be an object, for example pine cones. The other will be a different object, e.g. stones.

Have a ten frame on the ground outside. Have a pile of stones about ten yards away from it in one direction on the ground, and have a pile of pine cones about ten yards away from it on the opposite side.

The two children run off, get one of their object, and bring it back to the ten frame. They put it on the frame. Then they run back, get another, and bring it back to the ten frame.

The idea is to keep doing this until the ten frame is full.

If one child has more than five then they have won! There is an element of healthy competition involved!

Often you get a five-five draw. Sometimes it may be 6-4, or even 7-3.

This active, game-based approach to number bonds really does stick the bonds in the children’s heads. They start to see that six goes with four, and five with five.

In a team game, one child would go first, then the second child, and keep going like that. The big rule is you can only get one object at a time – no cheating!

Using loose parts outdoors can be excellent for early maths skills. If you want to find out more about loose parts play outside then check this out.

2. Explorer Treasure!

In this one the children are like explorers. They travel round outside, find interesting ‘treasure’ (leaves, sticks, or whatever else they can find) and bring them back and put them on the ten frame.

It really is that simple.

They can arrange the treasure in lots of different ways

3. Ten Frame Flash

You get a ten frame and some objects, and a sheet to go over the top. You put some objects on the ten frame under the sheet so the children can’t see them.

Each child will be sitting with their own ten-frame.

Then you lift the sheet off the ten-frame for a few seconds, before putting it back on. The children have to try to copy the array they have seen on the ten frame.

This is great for visualising, subitising, estimating, and counting.

What Age Should You Be To Use a Ten-Frame?

Ten-frames are very versatile and can be used by children of quite a range of ages. I think you can probably start when children are about three, and keep going in more complex ways up to at least seven, and possibly beyond.

Here is a rough timeline of how they can be used over this period:

3-4 years – Introduce the ten frame, explore different ways of making a number, and maybe practically explore ways of filling them up with objects

5-6 years – Explore number bonds in a more structured way; introduce adding; patterns; subetizing; estimating

7 years – Mental visualization of number bonds; adding; subtracting; more complex patterns; estimating; mental calculating

How To Use Them In Play

Access to ten frames in practical contexts can really deepen children’s understanding of them.

For example, I tried this in my snack area once. I got an egg box with ten sections, and let the children experiment filling it up with apples.

Another thing we did was our behaviour reward system. The children would win stickers when they did challenges, which they put on the wall. They put them on their own ten frame, and it was good for them to visual how full their mini chart was, and how many more they needed to fill it.

Big outdoor ten-frames are great fun. You can put arrays of sticks on the ground, or chalk huge ones on the floor.

Experimenting with large loose parts or found objects on ten frames really does bring them to life.

Top Tips For Using Ten Frames

1. Make an engaging ten frame
2. Use lots of natural objects, like shells, stones, leaves, and other things like that.
3. Model them first so they have some knowledge of how to use them
4. Play races and games, such as leaves v stones
5. Have smaller indoor ones, and big outdoor ones!
6. Attempt a range of skills as the children develop more mathematical knowledge

Conclusion

Ten frames are a really powerful way of creating multiple pictures in the minds of children.

They are a great springboard for all sorts of problem-solving, calculating, and visualising of maths.

They are also a really simple and beautiful resource that can be used in so many different ways all around your setting or in your home. Good luck making and using ten frames!

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Martin Williams

Hi, I'm Martin Williams, creator of the Early Impact Learning blog. I'm a preschool and early years teacher of ten years experience, and I also run practical training courses for nurseries and schools.