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Fingers, Fingers, 1-2-3!

by Diann Gano, M.Ed


“Fingers, fingers, 1-2-3…how many fingers do you see?”  

We are playing one of our favorite finger games. I hide one hand behind my back. When I bring it forward, I hold up some fingers and the children shout out the number of fingers that they see.

“Three!” shout the friends playing the game.

Finger games can be played anywhere at any time because our fingers are always, well…handy! Besides, there’s a lot of math to be learned in those little fingers. Fostering a love of math in children begins with building a basic understanding of numbers.

I watch as two-year-old Jade repeatedly looks at his fingers and then back at mine as he attempts to duplicate my patterns. Children learn through their senses, and Jade is visually and physically working his way through an early math skill. He is also engaging in a sensory-motor experience that helps build abstract thinking skills.

When children engage in finger play, sing counting songs and play counting games, they are building a strong number sense. Number sense is a person’s ability to understand key math concepts such as quantities and the numbers that represent those quantities, as well as concepts such as more or less. Children with good number sense can think flexibly and fluently about numbers.

While using his fingers, Jade can feel and see the difference between the numbers 2 and 4. This developmentally appropriate math game is helping Jade connect a quantity to its numeric name—and his vocabulary is growing as he chants along with the rhyme.

Compelling new studies are also revealing how hands literally “help the brain think.” According to the website Science Translated—which educates students and the public about ongoing scientific research in a simple, jargon-free way—”Children clearly ‘think’ with their hands while learning to count.”

Neuroscientists and educators agree: Children who learn to use their fingers as a mathematical tool in the early years experience more success in math than those who don’t.

When children use their fingers to count, they are strengthening their number knowledge and their ability to visualize numbers in their minds. Counting is more complex than simply memorizing and reciting number words. Children need to understand the counting sequence, as well as one-to-one correspondence, cardinality and subitizing.

  • Counting sequence: Counting involves using the same sequence each time, starting with one.
  • One-to-One Correspondence: Exactly one number from the counting sequence is assigned to each object in the collection.
  • Cardinality: The last number assigned to an object when counting the collection indicates the total quantity of objects in the collection.
  • Subitizing: The ability to recognize a small group of objects without counting.

Watching and listening to children’s counting will help you see what they know and what they still need to learn. Once the children have a strong understanding of the numbers up to five, try adding your other hand to the game. For example, I show two fingers on my right hand and three fingers on my left hand. The children have to add the two sets of numbers to give me a total number.

“1- 2-3, let me see…the number two!”

We also use our fingers to play with shadows. Using the sun as a light source, I call out a number. The children then hold up the appropriate number of fingers to represent that number, casting “finger shadows” on a wall or on the sidewalk. 

This is a great way to help children build their number sense. It allows the children to work on:

  • Finger-isolation activities such as pointing with the index finger, counting out the fingers on their hands or wiggling all of their fingers individually
  • Thumb-opposition activities such as touching the thumb to each finger to build strength and dexterity for pencil-holding and cutting with scissors

These are all good reasons to add some finger play to your days! Keep it fun, keep it spontaneous and keep it simple. What looks like child’s play will help build a strong foundation for later math learning. You can count on that!

21 Replies to “Fingers, Fingers, 1-2-3!”

  1. Fingers are a great way for early learning. Unfortunately, our school district discourages fingers for counting

  2. Fingers are the best way to start when it comes to introducing math to the little kids because it shows that with them counting their fingers they get a start on understanding how many things are in the world like example how many fingers you have.

  3. Even the youngest child can relate to using their fingers for counting and pointing and other activities.

  4. I love this ideas. I enjoyed watching children trying to make the fingers move as they are trying to understand how it works. It is fun to watch as you teach baby sign languages too. Awesome ideas.

  5. Counting with fingers is probably the easiest and fun way to help children when It comes to counting

  6. I didn’t know that teaching children to count with their fingers was so important for number sense. Thanks for the activities that will help me to share math sense with our children.

  7. Finger counting is a great way to introduce one-to-one correspondence. It is a great way for students to be able to visually see and touch what they are counting.

  8. wow so i loved this blog because i remember when i first learned too use my fingers to count i thought i was a genius lol i loved it and now my daughters are using their fingers to count its something thats quick and easy to get to.

  9. The basis formed from counting fingers can lead to much more elaborate and number systems for children even in of older ages. I once taught middle school students to rehearse their multiplies using the same finger sequence I used to employ with fives and tens. They recalled them much quicker doing that.

    Lamont Jackson

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