Math at Your Fingertips! Easy Counting Activities Using Number Gestures

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.

Finger Counting Supports Math Learning

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. In fact, using fingers or other body parts to count may be the oldest and most common way to represent and learn numbers.

When teaching counting, early childhood educators often use objects such as cubes or animal toys to make math concepts easier to understand. Fingers can work in the same way—plus they have the advantage of almost always being available.

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. Pairing hand gestures with speech can be a powerful tool to help children understand numbers.

Counting on Fingers Helps Children Practice 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.

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.

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.

Finger Counting Activities

There are many fun math activities that can be done using children’s fingers. Here are easy ways to incorporate finger counting into everyday conversations with young children:

  • Anytime you say a number word, pair it with a number gesture. When you count out loud to your child or label a group of things with a number word, demonstrate the number on your fingers, as well.
  • Bolster the connection between hand gestures and number words by encouraging your child to use both. For example: “Show me with your fingers how many crackers you have. Now tell me how many crackers you have.”
  • Encourage children to represent numbers in whatever way is comfortable for them. Some children struggle to arrange their fingers in specific ways (for example, three and four are particularly tricky). Young children could instead show the number three in an unconventional way, such as raising one finger on the left hand and two fingers on the right. You can play games asking your child how else they could show three fingers.
  • Make a game of counting together. Have your child be the verbal counter and you be the finger counter. As you raise each of your fingers, your child says the corresponding number word. Take turns in each counting role.
  • Use stickers or markers to put a colored dot on each of your child’s fingernails. Draw a maze using different colored pathways (see an example below). Have your child trace each path with the matching colored finger.
Image adapted from: Gracia-Bafalluy, M., & Noel, M. P. (2008). Does finger training increase young children’s numerical performance?. cortex, 44(4), 368-375.

Resource Authors

Madeleine Oswald, Michelle A. Hurst, and Susan C. Levine