What are base ten blocks?

Base ten blocks. They’re a must-have for any elementary math classroom, but what exactly are they, and why are they so useful?

Base ten blocks are math manipulatives that can be used to model numbers in our base ten number system.

The blocks are helpful because they are both a visual and tangible way of showing the value of digits in different place values.

Essentially, base ten blocks are are just little tiny cubes, arranged in different groupings to make different types of block.

Cubes are arranged in blocks of 1, 10, 100 and 1000 to help model the number of ones, tens, hundreds, thousands in a number.

They can also be used to model place value in decimal numbers as well as being a really useful when teaching addition and subtraction with regrouping.

What do base ten blocks look like?

Let’s start by taking a look at the different types of base ten blocks.

The smallest of the base ten blocks represents one. These tiny individual cubes measure 1cm x 1cm x 1cm in size.

This type of block is called a unit.

They look like this:

Next you have a block which consists of ten units fixed together in a stick.

This type of block is called a rod:

This next block consists of one hundred units joined together. They are arranged in a flat 10 by 10 structure.

This block is called a flat:

And finally, the largest block consist of 1000 units arranged in a 10 x 10 x 10 cube. This block is called a cube or a 1000-cube.

Place value blocks like these are usually made from plastic, wood, or sometimes foam.

Some sets have the different types of blocks (units, rods etc) in different colours to help children distinguish between them. Some, like my set above, are all the same colour.

Why are they called ‘base ten’ blocks?

We call them base ten blocks because we use them to help model numbers in our base ten number system.

Our base ten system uses 10 different digits to make numbers: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.

When it comes to our number system, ten really is the magic number.

If we look at our blocks, from smallest to biggest, we’ll see that each block is ten times bigger than the previous one:

When are base ten blocks useful?

Introducing place value

Base ten blocks are incredibly helpful when it comes to exploring place value.

When we talk about place value, we are talking about the value of different digits in a number depending on where that number sits.

Let’s take the number 333.

There are three ‘3’ digits in this number, but each one has a different value.

The 3 in the hundreds place has a value of 300, while the 3 in the tens place has a value of 30 and the 3 in the ones place has a value of 3.

If we use base ten blocks to represent the value of each of those digits, it’s really clear to see that each digit has a very different value.

When teaching addition and subtraction, base ten blocks are great for modelling regrouping.

This is best shown in a video. Take a look at this example where I use base ten blocks to help introduce double digit addition with regrouping:

Place value using decimals

Because the different base ten blocks sizes are proportional, we can also use them to model the different place values in decimal numbers.

For example, you could use all four type of blocks to show the size of tenths, hundredths and thousandths in relation to one.

We can use the cube to represent one, the flat to represent one tenth, the rod to represent one hundredth and the unit to represent one thousandth.

Using the base ten blocks in this way is great for showing how the different decimal places relate to each other. For example, we can show that there are 1000 thousandths in a ‘one’, or that there are ten hundredths in a tenth.

What grades use base ten blocks?

Base ten blocks are a great resource for children across the elementary grades.

In kindergarten, children begin to explore place value very simply by looking at the teen numbers. They are introduced to the idea of these numbers being made up of one ten and some additional ones.

Base ten blocks are helpful in grade 1 when children explore 2 digit numbers beyond just the teen numbers. In grades 2 and 3, base ten blocks come in handy again when children gain confidence with 3 and 4 digit numbers.

In grades 4 and beyond, base ten blocks are useful when introducing decimal numbers. They’re also useful when teaching addition and subtraction with regrouping.

And that’s the low-down on base-ten blocks!

Resources for practising place value

If your child is working on the math topic of place value, we have lots of place value resources in our store (many of which incorporate base ten blocks).

Have a browse in our Teachers pay Teachers store, as well as the Math, Kids and Chaos online store.