Ever feel your fingers move unconsciously when you’re figuring out simple math problems? It may be you’re sensing the strong neural connection between our fingers and numbers. Scientists became interested in this topic when noticing that the same areas of the brain that control the fingers light up when solving math problems even though people were not actually moving their fingers.
Researchers have found a strong connection between math skills and finger gnosia, or knowledge of your fingers (e.g. Penner-Wilger & Anderson, 2008). They test young kids by asking them to put their hands in a box with an open side. The researcher then touches one or more of the kid’s fingers, removes the box, and asks which finger was just touched. Children’s ability to recognize which finger has been touched predicts how well that child will perform on a variety of math tests over years.
Yet anytime we talk about how one skill predicts another, as researchers we need to figure out if there is a causal relationship between the skills. Is it that kids who are already predisposed to be good at math have great finger gnosia when they are young? Or can we teach finger gnosia to young children and see effects later in math performance?
There is some early evidence that direct finger awareness training can affect students’ later math performance (Gracia-Bafalluy & Noel, 2008; Jay & Betenson, 2017). For instance, in a recent study of 137 six and seven year olds, researchers worked with students for 4 weeks either playing finger gnosis activities or having them play number games or both, to see the effects on students’ quantitative skills. They found that while finger gnosis skills and number games alone did not improve quantitative skills, when combined together, they did significantly improve students’ quantitative skills. Here are a few of the games, they played with students:
Finger Gnosis tasks:
-Counting by 1s, 2s, 5s, and 10s on fingers
-Teacher asks students to “show me” a specific number on fingers
-Holding up fingers to represent operations (Show 3+ 4 on your fingers)
See more of the activities and number games here.
So, Kindergarten and First Grade teachers, don’t discourage finger counting! And remember, you can also promote more advanced counting strategies with fingers (e.g. counting on, counting by, etc.)…