Do you, too, remember sitting on your hands during math classes to avoid being caught counting on your fingers? When we were children, our teachers discouraged us from using our fingers, believing that doing so would hinder the development of an abstract understanding of numbers. Nevertheless, we would still glance at or move our fingers while counting or performing simple calculations. Even today, we occasionally use our fingers to count the days to know how many nights to book at a hotel from Wednesday to Sunday. Does this sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. Thinking about our shared experience, we wondered why using our fingers to count and calculate feels so natural and helpful, and yet is often discouraged in early math education.

Could children actually benefit from using their fingers for math? Working with colleagues, we have researched this question and gained some intriguing insights. Our findings challenge traditional beliefs, suggesting that children may in fact benefit from using their fingers and fine motor skills to grasp basic math concepts.

## The link between fine motor and basic math skills

We recently explored how fine motor and math skills develop between the ages of six and ten. We tested children’s fine motor skills by having them carry out age-appropriate tasks like threading beads, placing coins in a box, and drawing a path without crossing certain boundaries. Interestingly, six-year-olds with better fine motor skills also performed better in basic math tasks such as estimating small quantities without counting. This suggests that early experiences using fingers for fine motor tasks may support children’s early math learning.

“Early experiences using fingers for fine motor tasks may support children’s early math learning.”

In eight-year-olds, fine motor skills continued to be linked to performance in math tasks, including addition and subtraction. This association was stronger for tasks involving the non-dominant rather than the dominant hand. We don’t know why, but perhaps this is because the fine motor skills of the non-dominant hand are less developed than those of the dominant hand, which are trained through activities like writing. Using the non-dominant hand may therefore require more attention and control, making it easier to capture differences between children.

Interestingly, though, we found no association between fine motor skills and math skills in the ten-year-olds. It therefore appears that fine motor skills may be beneficial specifically when children are first acquiring basic math skills.

We used this insight to inform another study, which sought to identify any benefits of explicitly teaching children to use their fingers when learning math.

More on math learning and motor skills
How children move into the world of math

## Teaching children to use their fingers for learning math

As kids and then as parents, we have found that using fingers to count and calculate feels natural and often happens without specific instruction. We wanted to know whether explicitly teaching finger-based strategies enhances children’s early arithmetic skills in elementary school. To find out, we taught six-year-olds how to use their fingers systematically, in an attempt to facilitate their understanding of basic first-grade math concepts, including number lines, addition, and subtraction.

Over the course of the first school year, the children participated in 18 training sessions, each lasting 25 to 30 minutes and integrated into regular math lessons. We taught them to be more aware of their individual fingers, to count on their fingers, and to use them for arithmetic operations. A control group of children followed the standard curriculum, which included no instruction on using fingers for math.

The children who received the training outperformed the control group on addition and/or subtraction tasks at the end of first grade and in the middle of second grade. But the groups did not differ in their ability to estimate the position of numbers on a number line. It appears that raising fingers when adding and lowering them when subtracting was helpful for children, as these motions align well with the mathematical concepts of addition and subtraction.

“Encouraging children to use their fingers is a simple and effective way to help them grasp basic math concepts.”

## Fingers make math more graspable

Our studies show that despite our teachers’ concerns, encouraging children to use their fingers is a simple and effective way to help them grasp basic math concepts. Fingers are readily available tools that can make basic math concepts more accessible. Using them may help children develop the basic numerical and arithmetic skills they need for long-term success in math. Those well-meaning efforts to discourage us from using our hands may not have been helpful back when we were first learning math. We hope that more and more children in classrooms today will be encouraged to use their hands to facilitate their early math learning.

Based on our work and findings from other researchers, here are some practical tips and strategies to enhance children’s early math learning by encouraging them to use their fingers:

• Enhance finger awareness: Have children identify and differentiate individual fingers without looking. This should improve their dexterity and prepare them to use their fingers for counting and calculating.
• Share counting principles: Play counting games in which each finger represents a specific number (e.g., thumb for one, index finger for two, etc.) to reinforce crucial building blocks in early math learning. This helps children to understand that each object is only counted once, and that the order of numbers and number words is fixed.
• Make math learning interactive: Introduce clapping and story games in which children use their fingers to show numbers in response to aspects of the story. For example, use gestures such as pointing to and drawing a circle around objects to illustrate the number of items in a set.
• Play matching games: Use games to match number symbols and patterns of dots with finger patterns to show children that there are different ways of expressing a given number.
• Teach finger-based arithmetic: Encourage children to raise their fingers when adding, and lower them when subtracting, to show that a number is composed of other numbers (e.g., 2 + 4 = 6) and can be broken down into other numbers (e.g., 6 = 1 + 5), a fundamental concept for understanding basic arithmetic.
• Introduce abstract representations: Gradually introduce number lines and visual aids to help children transition, when they are ready, from finger-based to more abstract numerical representations.

Explore more

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