By Madeleine Oswald, Michelle A. Hurst, and Susan C. Levine, University of Chicago
Priya is completing an addition worksheet. She is stuck on the problem 5+3 so she decides to use her hands to help her figure out the answer. She holds up five fingers on one hand and counts to three while one-by-one raising three fingers on the other hand. Priya then counts all of her outstretched fingers. “Eight!” she says and moves on to the next problem.
Priya struggled to answer the math problem but she cleverly used a tool that’s available at her fingertips (literally!) to solve the problem.
It is a common myth that counting on fingers is an immature math strategy and hinders children’s learning. However, research shows that using fingers to help teach early math concepts supports children’s math learning. [1,2,3] In fact, using fingers or other body parts to count may be the oldest and most widespread number representation system in the world. 
When teaching counting, early childhood educators often use objects such as animal counters, base-10 blocks, or linking cubes. These objects, or manipulatives, can help make abstract math concepts and procedures more concrete and easier to understand.  Fingers can work in the same way—plus they have the advantage of almost always being available.
For an example of finger counting in action, watch this short video of a 2-year-old using materials readily available to him—his fingers—to practice counting his baby brother’s fingers.
The order of the number counting list. Raising a finger for each number in the list not only reinforces that four comes after three, but also that four is exactly one more than three. 
The base-10 number system. Counting on fingers reminds children that each decade (20, 30, etc.) has the same pattern, repeating the numbers one through nine before the decade name changes. [2,6]
The counting-on addition strategy. Priya practiced this in the example above when she counted to one number and added more numbers to find the total. 
Fingers can also be used to label set sizes. Have you ever noticed that sometimes children will respond to the question, “How old are you?” by silently holding up the correct number of fingers? This may be because young children find hand gestures easier to produce and understand than spoken or written number words. 
For example, the word twodoes not have any inherent two-ness about it. As English-speaking adults, we know what twomeans because we have collectively agreed that this particular combination of sounds and letters symbolizes two entities. Now imagine two outstretched fingers. This gesture inherently captures two-ness in that there are exactly two fingers raised. Pairing gestures with speech can be a powerful tool to help children understand the meanings of symbolic number words assigned to quantities.
This gesture inherently captures two-ness in that there are exactly two fingers raised. Pairing gestures with speech can be a powerful tool to help children understand the meanings of symbolic number words assigned to quantities.
The brain has networks that control our physical finger movements. It also has networks that mentally perceive and represent our fingers. This network is activated when adults and children perform math problems, even if they are told to keep their hands still. [8,9]
Moreover, children who have better finger sense—the ability to mentally represent individual fingers—also perform better on symbolic math assessments. [10,11,12]
There are many fun activities that can improve children’s finger sense and, in doing so, also improve their math abilities. 
Research shows that both seeing and hearing information can make difficult concepts easier to grasp.  Here are easy ways to incorporate finger counting into everyday conversations with young children:
Figure 1: Finger Tracing Activity
The authors are members of DREME’s Family Math project.
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 Oswald, M., Gibson, D., Butts, J., Levine, S., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (March 2019) The Spontaneous Use of Cardinal Number Gestures.Paper presented at the 2019 Society for Research in Child Development Biennial Meeting, Baltimore, MA