Fingers are one of the most helpful tools for children in learning mathematical concepts. This is partly due to their availability; it allows children to establish one to one correspondences, or it helps to lessen the memory load of a problem thanks to having physical representations of quantities. It can even help make instantly perceive quantities easier without needing to count them.
However, plenty of parents and teachers doubt if it’s good for children to use finger counting. One of the reasons for doubting is related to the misbelief that children who use finger counting or who solve arithmetic problems with their fingers know less than those who are able to solve problems by using mental math. In light of this argument, the first thing we need to make clear is the fact that a young child needs his or her fingers (or another suitable object) to represent quantities. It doesn’t mean that the child has a lesser capability in math than another child who is able to do mental math.
The ability to abstract concepts and use mental images is developed with age and, to get there, children need physical objects (toys, place markers, fingers…) to represent the quantities that they are working with. Researchers agree that stressing the importance of using these kinds of manipulative elements, and in particular, finger counting, creates a bridge that allows children to move on from elementary thinking, thanks to hands-on sensory-motor experience, to more abstract thinking.
Besides, different studies confirm that using fingers to count, add and to distinguish between the represented quantities, are good indicators of their future performance in certain arithmetic assignments.
That’s not all; the effect that finger counting has on the way the brain processes and represents numerical information lasts a lifetime, so it’s benefits aren’t limited to just childhood. Similarly, and more remarkably, is that this affect seems to be modulated by cultural variations. Not all cultures use finger counting to represent quantities, and the ones that do, don’t always do it the same way (for more information, see Bender y Beller, 2012).
If we consider the data derived from psychological research, a school-aged child who uses finger counting to solve certain math problems no longer has the negative tone described earlier in the post. As students continue understanding mathematical concepts, they’ll go on to discover other much more sophisticated and faster strategies than finger counting. In the end, fingers make it easier for us to do math if we’re working with small quantities (until 10, maximum 20 if we count with our toes, too).
We can help children discover the limitations of this strategy and understand the positives of other more elaborated alternatives from a cognitive point of view. Children will use the latter more and more as time progresses, although this isn’t to say that they’ll never go back to using their fingers again. In fact, everyone needs to use them once in a while.
Bender, A. y Beller, S. (2012). Nature and culture of finger counting: Diversity and representational effects of an embodied cognitive tool. Cognition, 124, 156-182