Three rocket cutouts under a paper plate, two out from under the plate


In this hands-on activity, students color and cut out rockets that are used as manipulatives to help them develop number sense, counting, addition and subtraction skills.



  • Color, cut out, laminate and prepare rocket shapes used in Part 1 and Extensions.
  • If using a whiteboard or flannel board, you may need to affix magnetic or Velcro strips to the small rocket shapes to free your hands while keeping the items on display.
  • Depending on students’ fine motor skills and lesson time constraints, consider having students color and cut rocket shapes needed in Part 2 prior to the lesson.
  • This activity can be completed in one session, or each part can be completed on separate days.


Artist's rendering of the NASA Space Launch System (SLS) launch vehicle

Artist's rendering of the NASA Space Launch System (SLS) launch vehicle. | + Expand image

Humans have been experimenting with rockets and the concepts involved in rocket flight for nearly 1,000 years. Modern rocket pioneers created what was the stuff of science fiction only 100 years ago: rocket-propelled devices that could explore land, sea, air and space. With the application of advanced scientific and engineering principles, rockets graduated from novelties to serious devices for commerce, war, travel and research.

Today, rockets have made some of the most amazing discoveries of our time possible. Rockets have launched spacecraft to every planet in the solar system and even sent humans to the Moon.

NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, is an advanced launch vehicle for a new era of exploration beyond Earth’s orbit and into deep space. SLS, the world’s most powerful rocket, is designed to launch astronauts in the agency’s Orion spacecraft on missions back to the Moon and on to Mars. It will also open the door for other payloads, including robotic scientific missions to places like Mars, Saturn and Jupiter.


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Part 1

  1. Show the set of five small rockets to the class. Display the rockets (whiteboard, flannel board, butcher paper or document camera) so that students can see them.
  2. Have the class count the number of rockets.
  3. Show students the paper plate. Cover all the rockets with the plate.
  4. Take two rockets out from under the plate. Have the class count the rockets they can see.
  5. Ask the students to figure out the number of rockets left under the plate.
  6. Remove the plate and confirm that their answer is correct. Ask the students how they determined the answer (counting on, subtraction, etc.).
  7. Tell students that they need to draw a picture or representation of what they see. Demonstrate how to draw the representation on the whiteboard or butcher paper.
  8. Draw a big circle to represent the plate.
    1. Use one color to draw two rockets or dots outside of the circle. These represent the rockets removed from under the plate. Label with the appropriate numeral.
    2. Use another color to draw 3 small rockets or dots inside the circle. These represent the rockets hidden under the plate. Label with the appropriate numeral.
    3. Write the numeral “5” to show the total number of rockets.

  9. Hand out a journal or a sheet of paper to each student. Let them practice drawing the representation.
  10. Repeat the activity several times, changing the number of rockets removed from under the plate. Each time, have students draw a picture to represent what they see. To save paper, suggest that they draw two lines to divide the paper into four sections and/or use both sides of the paper.

Part 2

  1. Divide the class into groups of two students. Distribute one paper plate and five rockets to each pair. Allow students to color and cut out small rockets. Hand out journals or one sheet of paper to each student.
  2. Have student pairs practice the activity independently, taking turns placing and removing the rockets. Students should take turns telling their partner how many rockets are under the plate. Encourage them to tell each other how they figured out how many rockets were left under the plate. Repeat several times.
  3. Each time the activity is repeated, have students draw a picture in their journal or on the paper to represent what they see. Remind them to label the picture with the appropriate numerals.
  4. Have students share their pictures with the class. After a student shows their picture, ask if another student or group has a picture that shows a different combination of covered and uncovered rockets. Share the different combinations of covered and uncovered rockets they found.
  5. As students become familiar with the procedure, vary the total number of rockets used. Repeat the activity.
  6. Depending on the ability level of the students, have them write simple addition and subtraction sentences. For example, to represent their drawings, students could write:
    1+4 = 5 or 5 – 1 = 4


Observe students as they repeat this activity. Discuss and evaluate their drawings. Ensure that each drawing has a total of five rockets (or has the appropriate number of rockets if using more or fewer).


Allow students to practice finding the missing addend using a number line from 0 to 10.

  1. Introduce or review the concept of a number line.
  2. Place a number line on the floor (premade, or with masking tape and marker).
  3. Color and cut out the large rocket (See Materials and Management).
  4. Students place the rocket at the start of the number line, ready to launch.
  5. Students or the teacher roll a die. Move the rocket the appropriate number of spaces on the number line.
  6. Continue to roll the die and move the rocket the appropriate number of spaces until the rocket reaches 10. For example, the student rolls a 6 and moves the rocket to the 6. The student rolls a 1 and moves the rocket to the 7. The student would continue to roll the die until a total of 3 is rolled on the die to reach 10. If the numeral rolled is greater than the number needed to reach 10, don’t move the rocket forward. Roll again until the rocket is moved to the 10 without going past.
  7. When the rocket reaches 10, have students reverse the direction of the rocket. Roll the die until the rocket returns to 0.
  8. Help students develop ways to record the data. Encourage them to use the data in simple addition and subtraction sentences. If more appropriate, fold the number line in half, and have students roll a die to reach 5.

On the playground:

  1. Draw a row of 11 squares on the pavement with sidewalk chalk.
  2. Label each square with a numeral from 0 to 10.
  3. Demonstrate to students how to play this math version of hopscotch. The hopscotch squares become a number line.
  4. A student stands in the 0 square. Roll a die. The number on the die determines the number of squares that the student jumps.
  5. Students roll the die and jump the appropriate number of squares until they reach 10. If the numeral is greater than the number needed to reach 10, do not jump past ten and instead roll again.
  6. When the student reaches 10, turn around and repeat the activity to reach 0.
  7. Encourage students to record the data in simple addition and subtraction sentences.

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