Handy Little Fingers as Counters

The most convenient counting manipulatives are children’s fingers, where their small digits are fun counters. As we work with two preschool sites, the Early Learning Math team has the privilege of working with and observing young children develop their math skills. In promoting number sense through play, we have discovered that children will often demonstrate finger patterns rather than verbalize the number word. For example, when we ask a young child how old they are, the child will respond by holding up two, three, or four fingers to represent their age. Throughout the day, children will often be asked the question, “how many?” How many blocks are there? How many children are at the table? How many, how many, how many?

My colleagues and I have noticed the following about finger patterns:

  1. Finger patterns for 1, 2, and 3 are the most recognizable among pre-k children.
  2. Muscles in their small hands are not fully developed enough to be able to hold up the traditional three fingers by having the thumb hold down the little finger.
  3. Children will make the finger patterns for 3 using the thumb, pointer, and middle finger or the middle, ring, and little finger.
  4. Younger children often use both hands to demonstrate 1 or 2. Both hands would hold up one or two fingers but the total is not based on both hands.
  5. Learning that there are 5 fingers on one hand is a progressive stage in learning. Quite often, children will count each finger up to five on one hand before counting fingers on the second hand.
  6. Children are tactile learners; therefore, they will often tap their fingers to their chin or lips to count their fingers.
  7. Some children will match their fingers to the items to count. For example, they will contort their fingers to match three fingers to three items to confirm their answer.
  8. Children will developmentally be able to demonstrate two different hand patterns and count for a total. i.e. “Show me five fingers and two fingers, how many fingers all together?”

One astute veteran preschool teacher noticed how children were engaged in finger patterns and created a high interest activity for her preschool children. She took photographs of her students making various finger patterns and had them printed and laminated. The students were excited to see pictures of the finger patterns belonging to them and their friends. They were able to replicate the finger patterns, see that fingers on two separate hands can be counted for a total, and begin recognizing finger patterns more quickly. The teachers we are working with are increasing their time in intentional math instruction throughout the day, including transition times. More importantly, we are observing students incorporating more math vocabulary words in their conversation, improving their number word sequence, 1:1 correspondence, and finger pattern recognition. Kudos to all the preschool teachers and staff we work with who are “doing the math” and making a difference to positively change the academic trajectory for our youngest learners.

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