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Reken-what? Getting Started with Rekenreks in Your Classroom

ideas for using rekenreks

Rekenreks. Have you heard of them? I’m sure if you’ve been in an elementary classroom you’ve seen one before. I remember the first time I ever heard the word rekenrek. There I was, sitting in a math webinar during professional learning as a first grade teacher. Our state was providing training for new standards that were being rolled out the subsequent school year. I thought to myself, “Reken-what? What in the heck is a rekenrek?” 

In a nutshell, rekenreks are arithmetic racks that can be used for an additional visual aid. There are two rods of ten beads. Each row has five beads of one color, followed by five beads of another color. With me so far? These simple beads can be used to develop number sense and can be used as a math manipulative in elementary classrooms.

rekenrek activities for kindergarten and first grade

Why Use a Rekenrek?

Early learners need multiple manipulatives to strengthen math skills as well as number sense. While there are many to choose from, I personally love rekenreks. You should always start out with physical manipulatives, but the great part is that you can use rekenrek flashcards as well! I created a FREE deck for you to try out in your classroom. Grab your FREE set here.

There are so many specific activities that a rekenrek can be used for. Students can find multiple ways to create given numbers, build missing addends, and even solve word problems. As a teacher, you should always offer your students multiple means of representation in math. Rekenreks are great for students to solve a wide variety of problems, while also strengthening number sense.

Rekenreks in the Classroom

I was so excited after learning about the rekenrek as a math tool in my professional learning that I wanted to implement them immediately in my own classroom. Problem was, yep, you guessed it. No money. None. Zip. Nada. Zilch. The funding for the current year was gone, but we could possibly get rekenreks the next school year. Well, darn. What’s a girl to do? That’s right! I looked around to see what I had on hand to make some myself, and guess what? It worked! 


I helped my students to construct personal rekenreks using very basic and inexpensive supplies.  You probably even have most of the things you’ll need in your classroom stash of craft supplies now! These individual rekenreks gave each child ownership over their math learning and increased engagement in our math lessons! They were using something they had made themselves to help them learn. Whoa! It made them FEEL like the little geniuses they were. Alas, I wish I had taken pictures then, but that was before I ventured into the blogging world, so I’ll have to do my best to recreate them for you now! 


*This would best be accomplished at the teacher table during small-group rotations. I definitely DO NOT recommend attempting to construct these in a whole-group setting!

DIY Rekenreks

Here is  everything you need to know about how to make rekenreks in your classroom with your students!

Supplies to make one rekenrek:

• 2 dark-colored chenille stems
• 10 red beads
• 10 white beads
• scrap cardboard 
• hole punch
• pencil
• ruler
• tape
• scissors

how to make a rekenrek

Step 1: Pre-cut the cardboard into 8 in. x 4 in. rectangles. This size is perfect for little hands to hold and manipulate during math lessons. The cardboard is too thick for students to cut through, so you’ll want these ready to go for your rekenrek construction session with students.

how to make a rekenrek

Step 2: Use the hole punch to punch 4 holes in the cardboard. Placement is important, so use a ruler and a pencil to mark where you’ll want the holes to go. The hole punch will determine how far in your hole can go, so you just have to measure how far down. Make your pencil marks at 1  3/8 in. from the top and bottom of the cardboard. The students may be able to help with this step. 

diy rekenrek
how to make a rekenrek

(Helpful Hint: Once you’ve made one, use it as a template and let your students mark dots on their cardboard to use as guides to punch their holes!)

how to make a rekenrek

Step 3: This next step is where students can definitely take over the construction process! They’ll need to string 5 red beads and 5 white beads onto each chenille stem.

rekenrek activities

Step 4: Lay the chenille stems on the cardboard aligned with the holes. Push the ends of the stems through the holes. Then, bend the overlapping pieces behind the hole on the opposite side of the cardboard. Use tape to secure the ends to the cardboard. The tape will also help to keep any sharp pieces from poking little fingers. And, VIOLA! You have a rekenrek ready for use!

resources for rekenreks
make your own rekenrek
how to make a rekenrek
how to make a rekenrek

How Do Rekenreks Help Develop Number Sense?

Rekenreks help students strengthen different math concepts and overall number sense. Rekenreks provide a visual model for an abstract concept. They help you provide developmentally appropriate instruction for your students. When you are teaching math, you first have to make abstract concepts tangible. You can’t jump straight to equations when introducing any new math skill. There is a large body of educational research that supports that students need to see, touch, move, and otherwise manipulate materials in order to best understand new concepts. 

That means you need to first provide concrete models for students to learn from. They need hands-on practice. The rekenrek does that, especially their personal rekenrek that they built with their own two little hands! After they are successful with concrete models of whatever concept you are teaching them about, then you move to representation. This means pictures, diagrams, and other visual models. This is where my rekenrek flashcards are super helpful. They’ve already “played with” the rekenrek, so they know exactly how the rekenrek operates. They know how to slide the beads to make new numbers, so they have a stronger understanding of how to think about the picture you’re showing them. Once they’ve really gotten the hang of the semi-concrete visual models, then you can move into the abstract. This is where you introduce the math skill or content using only numbers and symbols. 

So back to rekenreks specifically… They can help develop addition and subtraction strategies such as counting on, doubling, and counting by 5s and 10s. Students can also work on their grouping and regrouping strategies. Rekenreks are great for students to subitize and practice mental math strategies as well. I love that these can be used for hands–on learning but can also be geared towards digital learning too. I enjoy mixing up the ways that students can use rekenreks, so I created a task card version for students to use. This set includes 120 flashcards that can be used to gain a stronger sense of numbers 0-20. If you haven’t used rekenreks in your classroom, you don’t know what you’re missing out on. So, check it out!

Rekenrek Resources You Can Use Today!

So, we talked about how amazing rekenreks are, but now let’s talk about actual activities and resources that you can implement and use in your classroom.

Use the arrows and dots to scroll through these awesome resources. Did I mention that they are all FREE? 

Ready to Use Rekenrek Lessons
Hands-down, one of the most teacher-friendly resources I’ve found for rekenreks. This guide provides teachers with ready to use lessons that start with introducing the rekenrek to your class and include lessons on part-part-whole, making 10, combinations, subtraction, and even word problems!
Click Here
Teacher Intro Video
This resource is a video from Making Math Matters that shows her teaching rekenrek expectations to her learners. She also discusses the importance of using the rekenrek to subitize instead of counting beads one by one. I highly recommend you taking a look! She does a wonderful job providing lots of background info teacher MUST have before implementing rekenreks in their classrooms.
Click Here
Virtual Rekenrek
This provides you with a way to model the rekenrek on your interactive whiteboard. You could also share this link in Google Classroom or other student learning management software and give students access to the rekenrek as a virtual manipulative!
Click Here
Rekenrek Prompt Cards
These printable rekenrek prompt cards would be great to use during math talks with your students. This would be great as a small group or partner activity, too!
Click Here
Rekenrek Flash Cards
Rekenrek flashcards that are perfect for math talks, task cards, whole group, small group… their uses are nearly limitless!
Click Here

Rekenreks are so versatile in the fact that they can be used during whole group work, centers, and even independent work. Once you’ve moved to the representational stage of instruction, use the rekenrek task cards in centers for students to practice addition and subtraction, or even during whole group instruction as a way to mentally solve problems. While I love structured math activities, I also believe the best way for students to learn math is through manipulatives. Let students become familiar with the rekenrek through hands-on discovery and observation and your guided questioning. Students can “play” and come to realize for themselves the knowledge we want them to learn. I promise it will be more meaningful! It will help them make lasting connections across mathematical concepts, and it will help math make sense! 


If you decide to build rekenreks with your students, snap some pics and tag me on social media. I would love to see what you all are doing in your classrooms!   

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