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How to help your young child understand the equals sign (plus free printable)

How to help your child understand the equals sign

Understanding the equals sign is so important. Here’s a simple way to introduce your young child to this important math concept.

Understanding the equals sign.

It’s a pretty crucial concept to get to grips with when learning math. And yet, in my experience, so many children don’t fully understand what it means.

If you want a way to introduce your young child to this important math idea, then why not have a go at this quick and simple activity.

At the end of this post, I’ve included a fun cut-and-paste activity sheet for you to download for an extra bit of practice.

What does the equals sign really mean?

I know first hand from teaching math that, very often, children don’t fully understand what the equals sign really means.

So often, it is thought of as another way of saying ‘find the answer’.

For example, look at the number sentence 3 + 4 = 7. When many children look at this, what they’re seeing is ‘3 plus 4 gives me the answer 7. You calculate the total of 3 and 4 and then the equals sign seems to mean ‘and the answer is…’ (complete with big trumpet fanfare).

Think also about using a calculator. You punch in the numbers you want to add, subtract, multiply or whatever. The equals sign is the button you press right before the calculator shows you ‘the answer’.

What many children don’t realise is that the equals sign really represents equality (hence the name). It means that the value of what is on one side of the equals sign is of the same value as that on the other side.

Think of it like an old-fashioned weighing scale, with the equals sign in the middle. Both sides must be equal for the scale to balance:

For example:

balanced weighing scales with the equals sign in the centre, 7 on one side and 3+4 on the other side.

Understanding the equals sign is really important for children. Getting a solid understanding of this math concept early on will help them considerably as they carry on with math through school.

There are lots of really simple activities you can do with young children to introduce them to the equals sign. Here’s a really quick and simple hands-on activity using counting bears (or indeed any other counting objects) that you can do with your child at home.

Understanding the equals sign using counting bears

For this activity you will need some number cards and some counting bears (or something of a similar size that you can count with that won’t roll off the table).

You also need an equals sign, which you can draw on a piece of paper, post-it note or paper plate.

The aim of this activity is to show your child that the value (or amount) of what’s on each side of the equals sign must be the same.

First, start by putting the equals sign down on the table. Then choose a number card and put this on one side of the equals sign, for example the number 2:

number 2 and the equals sign

Help your child to count out the right number of counting bears to make both sides equal, like so:

the number 2, the equals sign and 2 counting bears

Choose another number card and again ask your child to add the correct number of counting bears so both sides are equal.

So if I have the number 7 on one side of the equals sign, count out 7 counting bears to go on the other side.

Try to put the numbers down on different sides of the equals sign each time. Remember, it doesn’t matter which side the number cards and bears go. The important thing is that both sides of the equals sign are of equal value.

Next, swap things around. Place a number of counting bears on one side of the equals sign like so:

9 counting bears and the equals sign

Help your child count the bears (in this case 9), and find the correct number card to balance the equal sign:

9 counting bears on one side of the euqals sign and the numeral 9 on the other side

Extension ideas

If you want to add a bit more challenge to this activity, why not try the following:

  • use bigger numbers, say up to 20.
  • use + and – to incorporate some simple number sentences
  • once your child has grasped the idea of the equals sign, you could then introduce the greater than and less than symbols.

FREE printable cut and paste worksheet

To follow up this counting bear activity, I have a cut and paste printable for you.

This worksheet is a simple, 2-page printable which consists of 6 questions.


To complete the activity, cut out the 6 cards on the first page (there are 4 number cards and 2 ‘bear’ picture cards).

Then, help your child to decide which card must go in each box to make both sides of the equal sign the same.


Don’t forget to download your copy of this printable before you go:

Thanks for reading today’s post about the equals sign. Hope you found it helpful.

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