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Parents, it’s OK to let kids’ fingers do the counting

Have you ever watched a young child count to 10? Their fingers are probably moving as the numbers go up.

Sometimes when you’re first learning math, help is right at the end of your hands. But is it OK for young kids to rely on their fingers?

Don’t worry, parents, researchers say there is a reason why that’s happening, and it’s not something kids should hide under the table or behind their backs.

“There’s different lines of evidence that suggest that fingers can be useful, especially in childhood, to learn about math and calculation," said Dr. Ilaria Berteletti, an educational neuroscientist at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C.

Berteletti studies the role of finger movement and finger representation in math learning. In a study of 40 children, ranging in age from 8 to 13, the researchers put kids in an fMRI imaging machine and told them not to move their hands. Then they were asked to do multiplication and subtraction problems.

Even though their hands remained still, the portion of the brain that controls the fingers still showed activity.

“And what we then saw is that activations for motor hand representation were higher for subtraction,” Berteletti said.

Berteletti said the findings suggest that fingers are good tools for children to learn basic subtraction and addition. She said parents can also teach the correspondence between numbers and objects by using fingers to count during everyday activities.

“When counting the stairs, they could start raising the fingers at the same time as they’re using the words,” Berteletti said.

Or count with your fingers as your kids do household chores.

When you let your child’s fingers do the counting, you’re setting the table for strong math skills, experts said.

Berteletti said the results suggest that educators should examine ways to incorporate finger-based learning into early math.

By the way, the scientists also learned that the finger representation portion of the brain did not activate strongly when the kids in the fMRI were doing multiplication, suggesting that’s a skill that relies more on a child’s memory.