Ask a four-year-old how old they are and most will respond by saying “four!” while holding up four fingers. Why? Almost all kids learn how to count using their fingers and by pointing to objects when counting a set.
But as kids grow older and enter grade school, the act of counting on fingers is often discouraged by teachers and parents because it’s seen as “babyish.” Well it turns out this negative perception of finger counting is misplaced.
In an article in The Atlantic Jo Boaler, Ph.D., a Stanford University mathematics education professor and author of the book Mathematical Mindsets, writes that we should be encouraging kids to use their fingers to count because it can lead to higher mathematical achievement.
Boaler writes in the article:
“Stopping students from using their fingers when they count could, according to the new brain research, be akin to halting their mathematical development. Fingers are probably one of our most useful visual aids, and the finger area of our brain is used well into adulthood. The need for and importance of finger perception could even be the reason that pianists, and other musicians, often display higher mathematical understanding than people who don’t learn a musical instrument.”
For example, first graders with better finger representation tended to score higher on number comparison and estimation tasks in the second grade. Children’s finger representation is assessed by having one of their fingers touched by another person (while their fingers are under a table or covered) and asking them which finger was touched.
Developing strong math skills needs to start early. “Math skills in early education predict academic achievement in multiple subject areas including later math and literacy,” says Helen Hadani, Ph.D., Head of Research at Center for Childhood Creativity at the Bay Area Discovery Museum.
“And research tells us that encouraging children to use their fingers to count will help young children build strong mathematical knowledge by making math visual and giving it meaning beyond the abstract concepts of numbers and symbols,” says Hadani.
Let go of the idea that finger counting in math class is “babyish.” This technique can actually help your child understand math on a deeper level and lead to higher math achievement later in life.
To learn more about building a strong foundation for math skills in early childhood, read the Creativity Trend Report: Volume 1 by the Center for Childhood Creativity at the Bay Area Discovery Museum.