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Playing with Place Value

Playing with place value

Place value may seem a simple concept but it can be very difficult to teach successfully. There are many materials available to use in the classroom, but which ones work? When should they be used? Respected educator, Paul Swan, presents well-researched approaches which will help you to teach, and your students to learn, place value.

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More teaching ideas


  • Write a warning sign in Braille applicable for a person who is vision impaired; e.g., high step, steep incline, etc.

International marine signal flags

  • Sort flags according to their properties; e.g., symmetry, halves, quarters, etc.
  • What smaller shapes can you find inside the flags? What shapes make up each flag?
  • Why don’t they use colours other than red, yellow, blue, white and black?

Dancing men cipher

  • Integration – make up own version using symbols relevant to the topic/theme being studied; e.g., space.

The Overland Telegraph line

  • In the ‘olden days’, Morse code was only used in urgent situations, otherwise letters were written. Write down 3 urgent messages that could have been sent via Morse code.
  • Write a story about a camping adventure that goes wrong. Make sure the solution to the problem in the story is written in Morse code.


  • Write spelling list of the week in pigpen cipher.
  • Write a letter to a friend in code.


Rail fence cipher

  • Decipher a rail fence cipher
  • Write a list of instructions for an activity in rail fence cipher; children will need to break the code to work out how or what to do in activity.


  • Additional uses of flags; e.g., show jumping.
  • Play a simple game of Chinese whispers to show how a message has more chance of being messed up the more people you have involved. Play Chinese whispers using the flags.

Sign language

  • Read a repetitive book as a whole class. Each time one of the common words comes up, sign it instead of saying it.
  • Learn some of the more common nursery rhymes in sign language.
  • Play any floor/whole class game and instead of saying the person’s name, sign it.  “Hey _____.  Can you hear my name?” etc.

More investigation ideas

  • Look at systems for identifying animals on farms/stations; e.g., pig breeding uses an ear marking system where triangles are cut into pigs ears for particular numbers.
  • Investigate tattoo symbols on dogs ears, or symbols/brands on horses.