Adding and Subtracting with Playing Cards

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Adding and subtracting can be a fun game using playing cards with your child.

Teaching your child early math like addition and subtraction can be simple, especially when using tangible items like playing cards to teach the lesson.

When our oldest was barely 3, we decided to incorporate addition and subtraction into everyday activities, like eating breakfast in the morning. If we asked her to take 4 more bites, we would hold up 4 fingers, and when she took a bite, subtract 1 finger. We’d talk about it as we did it: “What’s 4 minus 1? 3!” And show her that there were 3 fingers remaining.

We wanted to normalize doing early math experiments at home and make them fun so when she goes to school and starts learning math, she has a fun memory of it and a strong foundation.

How to make the Adding and Subtracting with Playing Cards math experiment

Supplies you will need

For this experiment, you will need the following:

Supplies needed for adding and subtracting with playing cards experiment

Before you start

If you are not using toddler scissors to cut your paper, please watch your child when using scissors.


Here is how to do the Adding and Subtracting with Playing Cards experiment with your child:

Step 1: Create your +, -, and = cards

Making your math signs on printer paper for experiment

This first step is an easy one!

Cut out three small squares, about 2″ by 2″, using printer paper or a sheet of lined paper.

Using a marker, draw a + sign on one of your small squares, a – sign on the second square, and an = sign on the last square.

Step 2: Begin with 1 equation, adding up to, or subtracting from, 5

Starting with a basic equation. You can even use a sheet of paper to show the addition or subtraction process!

When getting started with this experiment, especially if addition and subtraction are brand new topics to your child, it’s important to start small.

This first step is to get your child comfortable with the idea of using the playing cards to do addition and subtraction problems.

Start with just one equation, say 3+2. In this case, place the 3 card down first, then the + sign piece of paper, then the 2 card, and finally the = sign piece of paper.

Here, we can ask questions to get them started:

  • What is 2 plus 3? – put down the 2 card, a plus sign, the 3 card, and an equals sign
  • What is 2 minus 1?

Depending on what is easiest for them, you could either have them count the symbols on each card to add them together, or you could even use your hands to visualize adding them together or subtracting from one another.

Get your child involved: After you demonstrate a few addition and subtraction equations to your child, see if they are willing to make their own equations and do the math themselves!

Step 3: If they have a solid foundation by using numbers adding to 5, increase it to 10

Creating a more complex equation, again with a sheet of paper showing the process

Once they have a solid foundation by adding numbers with the result 5 or under and subtracting from 5, then we can add a little more complexity by increasing it to 10.

I like to keep the largest number we use 10 for this stage because we typically do addition and subtraction equations with our hands at the dinner table.

The key is to meet your child where they’re at. If the increase is too overwhelming for your child, then don’t make the increase this early. It still drives the lesson home during this experiment.

The math behind the Adding and Subtracting with Playing Cards math experiment

This experiment teaches:

  • An introduction to addition and subtraction
  • Counting
  • Visualization

How it works

Playing cards are a fantastic way to build equations and learn how to add and subtract, especially when the playing cards have symbols on them to count.

It gives your child a visual equation to follow, as well as showcases how the two numbers interact in your mathematics equation.

Introduction to addition and subtraction

Addition and subtraction are easy math topics to introduce to even a young child. It’s best introduced with more concrete objects, like playing cards or even Unifix cubes.

In this math experiment, we are showing how to add, subtract, and form equations using playing cards.

If your child has never been introduced to addition and subtracting, it’s a great time to introduce the concept before diving into the equations. In our house, we decided to use our hands to introduce the concepts of addition and subtraction.

  • Addition: hold two fingers up on one hand and three on the other. Count how many you have when you combine them, and explain that that process is called “adding”.
  • Subtraction: hold up five fingers and lower two fingers. Count how many are remaining, and explain that that process is called “subtracting”.


This experiment covers even more than just addition and subtraction: there’s also a hidden lesson in one-to-one correspondence (where each object can only be counted once).

If your child struggles with counting individual objects and instead recites 1-10 when you ask how many there are of something, this would be a great lesson to introduce to them.

When counting symbols on your playing cards (especially if your child is struggling with one-to-one correspondence), take your time counting each individual symbol.


Adding and subtracting can be overwhelming because it can be hard to visualize the math.

When you add in a tool like playing cards (especially playing cards with symbols to count on them), it gives your child the opportunity to visualize adding and subtracting numbers.

One aspect I really like about using playing cards is that you can use the answer to the equation (so 5 is the answer to 2+3) and, using a pencil, circle each of the two numbers you’re adding together. In this example, draw a circle around two of the symbols on the 5 card and another circle around the remaining three symbols.

For subtraction, you can simply cover up the number you’re subtracting on the first card to visualize subtracting one number from another. For example: if you are showing your child 4-3=1, then you will use the 4 card, cover up 3 symbols, and count the remaining symbols (1).

More math experiments explaining addition and subtraction to try out with your child

FAQ about the Adding and Subtracting with Playing cards math experiment

How do you explain addition to a child?

Playing cards are a great way to teach early addition concepts to a child. Make an equation with 2 cards (like the 2 of hearts and 3 of hearts) and show that they equal the 5 of hearts. On the 5 of hearts, use a pencil to circle 2 of the hearts and another circle around the 3 to show the two numbers combined, or added together.

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