How To Teach Variables To Elementary Students

Variables are all around us – we even have to deal with them in our day-to-day activities. However, we may not always be aware that we’re applying such a common math concept in practice. Elementary students also see variables in use all the time, especially in sports, but teaching them the technical concept can often be a challenge.

Here’s how to teach variables to elementary students:

  1. Explain what a variable is in simple language.
  2. Explain the different types of variables in detail.
  3. Explain the application of variables.
  4. Explain the criteria for selecting variables.
  5. Use practical examples.
  6. Teach using games.

This article will take you through some of the easiest ways to teach variables to elementary students. So, make sure to read on to learn more!

1. Explain What a Variable Is in Simple Language

Elementary students may not have a clear understanding of complex arithmetic problems. Therefore, the best way to teach them variables is by explaining what a variable is in a simple language they can comprehend. Therefore, make the learners see that variables are all around them and use real-life examples they can relate to.

A variableOpens in a new tab. is a quantity that may change over time within the context of the problem or experiment. In arithmetic and coding, we mainly use the variables X and Y. However, when teaching elementary students, you can use any letter to represent the items you utilize as examples.

Variables are unknown values. Hence, you can use as many examples as possible to show your students what a variable is. One of the best examples is a menu, as every child has come across one and understands its importance.

For instance, you can have a menu like the one below:

Doughnut $2

Burger $3

Soda $1

Milkshake $5

If D represents doughnuts, B represents Burger, S represents soda, and M represents milkshake, you can make a simple equation to show how much one will spend when buying several items.

Therefore, if you buy two doughnuts, four sodas, one milkshake, and two burgers, you can represent it as follows:

2(D) + 4(S) + 1 (M) + 2(B)

=2(2) + 4(1) + 1(5) + 2(3)

=4+4+5+6= 19

D, B, S, and M are variables, while the prices of the items are the constantsOpens in a new tab. as they do not change as the quantity changes. Thus, here’s how to solve the problem:

  • Substitute the letters with the number of items bought.
  • Multiply the substituted letters by each item’s price.
  • Add the total amount for each item category to get the full amount spent.

Here’s a step-by-step guide that further explains the use of variables:

2. Explain the Different Types of Variables in Detail

There are different types of variables. However, for elementary students, it’s best to teach them only the essentials. You should introduce your learners to the two fundamental variables since the rest may be too advanced for their learning stage.

These variables fall into two categories, including:

Let us look into these two variable categories in more detail:

Dependent Variable

A dependent variable is a quantity whose value depends on the value of another quantity. When evaluating the value of the dependent variable in a mathematical equation, it will be dependably reliant on the free variable in a math equation. Sometimes, we refer to the dependent variable as the outcome variable.

Take, for example, the condition y=x + 5. In this equation, the value of the variable “y” depends on the value of “x.” So, “y” is the dependent variable.

Here’s a simple illustration of how to apply this equation:

John wants to compare the number of cars going through a stop sign between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. with the number of vehicles going through between 11 a.m. and 12 noon.

In this case, the number of cars going through the stop sign is the dependent variable, while the period is the independent variable.

Independent Variables

An independent variable is a quantity that stands alone and that other variables can’t change in an algebra equation. According to the Khan AcademyOpens in a new tab., an independent variable represents a quantity one can manipulate in an experiment.

If you have two variables in an algebraic equation, the value of x is usually the independent variable. It’s linked with the value of y since the variable y depends on the x value. Hence, y is the dependent value.

For example, in the equation y= x2, x is an independent variable while y is the dependent variable.

In the illustration about cars above, the period was the independent variable, and as we know, the period was one hour. At the same time, the number of vehicles going through the stop sign was the dependent variable.

Apart from the dependent and independent variables, there a few other types of variables you might want to prepare your students for as they progress academically, namely:

  • Random variables. They are quantities whose value depends on a random experiment.
  • Continuous variables. These are variables that can take an uncountable and infinite set of values.
  • Categorical Variables. These variables can take on a fixed number of potential values.
  • Intervening variables. They are also known as the mediator variable. These variables are helpful in research. Additionally, they are theoretical variables that explain the connection between the dependent and independent variables in the study.
  • Moderator variables. A moderator variableOpens in a new tab. affects the relationship between the independent and dependent variables and changes its strength and direction.
  • Control variables. They refer to anything constant or items that remain unchanged throughout the experiment.
  • Extraneous variables. These are variables you do not include in the experiment but can potentially change its results. If not controlled, extraneous variables can lead to erroneous conclusions about the dependent and independent variables’ relationship.
  • Free variables. These are variables with no limitationsOpens in a new tab.; they can represent any number they need to.
  • Bound variables. These are the opposite of free variables. Thus, they have limitations and specific values. Moreover, you cannot use them to represent any number you need.

3. Explain the Application of Variables

Elementary students can find the knowledge of variables unrealistic. Therefore, it would help if you taught them how they could apply variables in real-life situations.

There are many ways one can apply the knowledge of variables. The most common one is in mathematics, as described above. However, these are not the only uses of variables.

Here are some other fields that use variables:


One of the many applications of variables is in programming. Computer programsOpens in a new tab. use variables to store information. Programmers use variables the same way as in algebra, where a letter stands for a number.

Therefore, you can use variables to keep game scores or the cost of items on a till in the supermarket. In programming, variables are not only numbers; they can be text or values such as “true” and “false.”

For instance, if you’re playing a computer game, you can use the score as a variable. If the character in the game gains one point, the variable score increases by one. As a result, the variables will keep changing as the points in the game increase.

The above example is quite applicable to elementary students who love playing computer games.

You can use variables to run most computer programs. During the program’s running, a computer needs to hold information in its memory, which can be either a number or an answer to a question. Variables allow you to store, access, and change information as the program runs.

Some of the most common programs that use variables that elementary students may understand and relate to are:

  • Car parks. They use a program to open and close the barriers. You can use the program to count the cars going in and out of the car park in a particular period.
  • Supermarkets. In a supermarket, you can use variables to store information about the items you purchase. As you scan your items, the total of the variables increases. Therefore, you will use the value of the variables to calculate the total amount you need to pay for your purchase.
  • Computer games. When playing a computer game, lives are the variables that change constantly. Therefore, losing a level in the game means losing a life, and the variable’s “life” decreases. The opposite happens when you gain points and earn lives by collecting treasures.


Another practical use of variables is in research. Apart from the dependent and independent variables, researchers utilize other types of variables, including the intervening and moderator variables.

The purpose of research is to define and explain the variances in the world. Therefore, variance refers to a difference occurring naturally in the world or by changes created during an experiment.

For instance, when researching a new drug, the researcher can observe two groups of people. So, they administer the placebo to one group and the active drug to the other. The group with the placebo drug is the dependent variable, while the other with the active drug is the independent variable.

According to the Office of Research IntegrityOpens in a new tab., the researcher manipulates an independent variable to determine the changes it causes in the dependent variable, if any. Understanding variables in research studies is essential as they are the basic information units.


Variables are a vital part of science experiments. In science, a variable is an element you can control, change, or measure in an investigation. You can use several variables in your scientific practicals, including dependent, independent, extraneous, and controlled variables.

You only use independent and dependent variables when plotting graphs and charts. A controlled variable does not change during the experiment. However, the extraneous variable can affect the experiment’s outcome, and you don’t consider it when measuring. The variables may not necessarily change the experiment’s outcome, but they can cause errors in the results.

The extraneous variable can be:

  • Accidents during the experiment.
  • Factors you can’t control.
  • Factors you can’t measure.
  • Factors you may consider insignificant.

For instance, when experimenting with the absorption of different types of papers, you may consider the color of the paper to be the extraneous variable. You may note that you used different paper colors, but the color doesn’t affect the experiment’s outcome.


A variable in statistics can be in the form of a trait, a factor, or a statement that will constantly change following environmental changes. The standard variables that statisticians use include:

  • Dependent variables
  • Independent variables
  • Continuous variables
  • Categorical variables
  • Quantitative variables
  • Qualitative variables

Quantitative variables require a measuring instrument, numbers represent them, and they can either be continuous or discontinuous.

A continuous variable has an infinite set of values, while a discontinuous variable has two or more values. However, unlike the continuous variable, these have limitations.

Some examples of quantitative variables are weight, height, age, etc.

On the other hand, qualitative variables show the character’s qualities that you can’t measure using measuring instruments — for example, race, sex, color, and gender.

4. Explain the Criteria for Selecting Variables

It’s crucial to teach elementary students that they need to use certain criteria when selecting the variablesOpens in a new tab. they use in future research or experiments. Some variables may meet the required standards, while others will not. Depending on the type of application you’re using the variables for, you should ensure the variables meet the required criteria.

Here are some of the criteria you should consider when choosing a variable.

Ensure that:

  • It’s measurable.
  • It’s replicable.
  • It’s constituent with the objective of the study or experiment you’re doing.
  • It’s affordable and can fit the study.
  • It’s currently being used mainly for scientific and research variables. You do not want to use an obsolete variable.
  • It’s dominant in the community.
  • It’s reliable or that it gives consistent results over some time.
  • It’s valid; for example, you cannot use meters (feet) to measure the weight of a person, but you have to use kilograms (pounds).
  • You can measure it with the available tools.
  • That it’s not so time-consuming – we don’t want to have a variable that may take many days or even weeks to measure.
  • It’s not so uncommon that you cannot measure it.
  • It’s within the scope of the studyOpens in a new tab..

5. Use Practical Examples

Children understand better when you take them through fun activities related to their learning. In this case, you can get your students to identify and provide examples of the variables they may have encountered in their surroundings. Identifying variables in the environment will keep the learners engaged and help them think outside the box.

You can give your students assignments as a group to discuss some of the things they think are variables. For instance, you can keep a scoresheet in the classroom for the group discussion and ask them to identify the variables. Assignments will help you know if the students have understood the concept or not.

You may also use the supermarket till scenario and ask them to make a simple equation of how much they will require to purchase specific items in the grocery store. Alternatively, if the school is near a busy road, you can use one period to take statistics of cars passing by.

These simple exercises will help elementary students understand variables better and find it fun to learn outside the classroom. If this is the first time teaching elementary students, you may want to check out How to Succeed as an Elementary TeacherOpens in a new tab. (available on

It’s an excellent book with pointers on how you can win students over and succeed as a teacher. It’s affordable and helps create a better learning environment for everyone involved.

6. Teach Using Games

Elementary students love playing, and there is no better way to teach them than with what intrigues them the most. So, you can introduce various games to help your students learn variables in a stress-free situation.

Some of these are:


It’s a top-rated game for children. It’s not only fun, but it allows them to create objects and have specific goals. Minecraft is one of the best tools to help elementary students learn variables in coding and programming. Microsoft Minecraft – Nintendo Switch (available on is compatible with most operating systems.


Throwing dice is another exciting game you can play with elementary students to teach them variables. It allows them to create equations from the possible outcomes of the dice rolls. Dices are also cheap and create a fun learning experience; therefore, I highly recommend this approach.

Variable Matching Game

It’s a captivating gameOpens in a new tab. to introduce and help elementary students understand variables. You can create some cards with variable expressions, have each student choose a card from a basket, and let them find their variable twins. The Variable Matching Game is fun and creates a bond in the classroom.

Key Takeaways

Teaching variables to elementary students can be a tricky process. However, you can use real-life examples that students can relate to, making it easier for them to understand. Moreover, ensure that you use the most straightforward language possible to help them learn and retain their knowledge as well as possible.

Some tips you can apply when teaching variables to elementary students include:

  • Explaining the different types of variables and giving practical examples that the students can relate with.
  • Defining the criteria for selecting variables.
  • Teaching students how to identify variables in their surroundings.
  • Using games to teach variables.


Mr Mustafa

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