In my more-often-than-normal conversations about math, I have found that many adults use the following phrase as evidence that they’re not math people:
I still use my fingers to do math problems.
The underlying assumption is one that has been passed down from one math classroom to the next: using your fingers to help you do math is bad.
If you relied (or still rely) on your fingers to calculate, don’t be ashamed – recent research suggests that finger counting is actually an essential part of children’s mathematical development!
Historically, finger counting has been used across cultures and time periods. Evidence of finger counting has been found in artifacts of Native America tribes, the Greeks, the Romans, and the indigenous Papua New Guineans. It’s also no coincidence that our base 10 number system coincides with the number of fingers we have. Even more interesting is the linguistic connection between fingers and numbers: the word digit can refer to either a numeral between 0-9 or a finger (or toe)!
Children across cultures use their fingers as a visual tool to develop foundational concepts about numbers. Even without explicit instruction, preschoolers will use their fingers as a tool for counting and completing mathematical tasks. Children develop the concepts of one-to-one correspondence as they count one object per finger and cardinality as they understand that the last number counted represents the total amount in the group (Di Luca and Pesenti 2011).
Finger Awareness and Math Understanding
Recent research adds to this understanding of finger counting by connecting mathematical understanding to finger awareness, or how well you can distinguish between your fingers. Scientists test finger awareness by shielding a child’s hands from sight, touching one or multiple of the child’s fingers, and then asking the child which fingers were touched. Here are some of the highlights of the research (taken from Boaler, et al. 2016):
- Children’s finger awareness in Grade 1 predicts their understanding of estimation and number comparison in Grade 2.
- When 6 year olds with poor finger awareness improve their finger awareness, their performance on counting and number ordering tasks improves.
- College students’ finger knowledge predicts calculation scores.
These findings suggest a fascinating connection between finger awareness and math skills. A study by Bertelleti and Booth (2015) presents a neurological explanation to this relationship.
Our brains have a section that is dedicated to the perception and representation of our fingers called the somatosensory finger area. In their study, Bertelleti and Booth used an fMRI to look into children’s brains while they did subtraction problems. They found that even though the children didn’t actually use their fingers to do the problems, their somatosensory finger areas lit up.
They also found that the somatosensory finger area was more active for problems that were more complex. These findings suggest that even when we do not actively use our fingers to calculate, “we ‘see’ a representation of fingers in our brain” (Boaler 2016).
Together, these studies emphasize the role that finger counting plays in children’s numeracy development. As children develop the somatosensory finger area of their brain, they’re building a visual aid that will help them interpret and understand numbers all the way through adulthood.
With great knowledge comes great responsibility. Equipped with the above research, you now have the power to choose between the following two paths for your child:
Here are some actions you take at home to foster finger counting and finger awareness:
- Celebrate and encourage your child’s finger counting. It’s a tool that’s right at their fingertips!
- If your child is learning what numbers are, represent numbers with both your words and your fingers. Encourage your child to represent numbers with their fingers as well. Note that children may use different representations based on what is comfortable for them. You can also ask your child to represent the same number in multiple ways: How else can you make three with your fingers?
- Help build your child’s finger awareness by working through some of these research based finger training activities developed by YouCubed.
I am not advocating that children should always use their fingers to count. Developing effective mental math strategies is essential to completing higher level math tasks. In later posts, I’ll discuss strategies you can do at home to support the development of mental math skills. For now, though, I want to emphasize that finger counting is an essential step in the learning process that should be encouraged rather than discouraged, no matter how old a child is.
- Why Kids Should Use Their Fingers in Math Class: an article by Jo Boaler and Lang Chen in The Atlantic
Berteletti I, Booth JR (2015). Perceiving fingers in single-digit arithmetic problems. Frontiers in Psychology 6: 226. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00226/full.
Boaler J, Chen L, Williams C, Cordero M (2016) Seeing as Understanding: The Importance of Visual Mathematics for our Brain and Learning. J Appl Computat Math 5: 325. doi: 10.4172/2168-9679.1000325
Hurst, M., Levine., S. and Oswald, M. (Jan 29 2020). Math at Your Fingertips! Easy Counting Activities Using Number Gestures. https://dreme.stanford.edu/news/math-your-fingertips-easy-counting-activities-using-number-gestures.