Math

Letting Kids Count On Their Fingers Actually Helps With Their Math Skills

Aren't fingers useful? You can point with them, manipulate objects with them, and even create language with them. (Don't even get us started on opposable thumbs.) We may be able to add another finger perk to the roster: According to research, allowing kids to count with their fingers is critical to their overall understanding of math.

Related: Here's Why You Should Praise Kids For Their Work Ethic, Not Their Smarts

We Declare A Finger War

Despite the fact that using your fingers to count has historically been regarded as "not something the smart kids do" in classroom settings, recent neuroscience suggests otherwise. There is a specific region of the brain dedicated to finger perception and representation called the somatosensory finger area. A 2015 study published in Frontiers in Psychology showed that this area lights up when you're solving complex math problems—even when you aren't actually using your fingers to count. Essentially, we "see" a representation of our fingers in our brains when we're crunching numbers. The mathematical importance of finger perception could even point to why pianists and other musicians often display higher mathematical understanding.

Related: Teachers Can Spread Math Anxiety To Their Students

Before you go all "Snakes on an Inclined Plane" on us: we're not suggesting that letting kids count with their fingers will lead to prodigious brainpower, but we are saying that they may benefit from it in the long run. Researchers found that when they trained 6-year-olds to have better "finger awareness"—which they test by having the children name which finger is being touched without looking—it not only improved the kids' current arithmetic knowledge, but it also predicted future mathematical success and higher scores in cognitive processing. That's A-OK by us!

Thumbs Up, Calculators Down

According to Stanford education professor Jo Boaler, math is more than just memorizing equations and calculating as fast as you can. Higher-level mathematics requires creative thinking. She warns that when teachers prevent students from counting with their fingers, they actually slow down their mathematical development. Think about it: fingers are one of our best visual aids when it comes to math. Instead of considering using them to count as a weakness, parents and teachers should encourage the practice.

Related: The Approximate Number System is How You Count Without Counting

Boaler further stresses importance of visual learning when it comes to both abstract and higher-level thinking. The benefits of developing your visual thinking can extend well into adulthood. For instance, some scholars have noted the correlation between visual thinking and success at the workplace. Take that, finger-phobic math teachers: counting on your fingers is definitely what the smart kids do.

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. If an art class only taught you how to paint a fence and never showed you paintings of the masters, you would probably not become a lover of art. This is how most math is taught. 00:13

  2. "Mathematics is essential to our freedom and the function of our democracy." 02:57

  3. Science should be communicated in a way that links to something that people already know. 05:28

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