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Rediscovering a Powerful Mathematical Tool with Finger Counting

When we think of arithmetic, methods such as memorising multiplication tables, using pencil and paper algorithms or utilising calculators typically come to mind. However, finger counting has been an often-overlooked mathematical tool for centuries. While it may seem rudimentary in our age of advanced technologies, using our fingers to represent and manipulate numbers provides a compelling way to develop number sense and arithmetic skills, especially for young learners.


At its core, finger counting involves using the fingers on one or both hands to visually represent numeric values and quantities. There are various finger counting systems, but a common one uses the fingers on one hand to represent the numbers 1 through 5, employing finger combinations to indicate 6 through 10. The other hand can then represent values in the tens place. So, to show the number 27, you would hold up two fingers on one hand (for two tens) and seven fingers on the other. You can then use motions and rearrangements of the fingers to model basic arithmetic operations like addition, subtraction and even multiplication.

The idea of using our hands as counting tools is a technique deeply rooted throughout human history and across cultures. Many ancient civilisations, such as the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, used their fingers and finger symbols to perform calculations. In fact, the etymology of number words in various languages, such as English, French and Russian, reveals how they were derived from the words for fingers, thumbs and parts of the hands.


Despite its simplicity, finger counting is remarkably effective for young students in building strong foundational number sense and arithmetic skills. At a cognitive level, physically representing quantities with fingers allows learners to connect the symbolic representation of numbers to the actual quantities they stand for. This bridges the gap between the abstract idea of a number and the tangible real-world concept of "fiveness" or "tenness."

Separating ones and tens between the two hands builds an innate understanding of place value and our base 10-number system. Rather than just memorising procedures, finger counting lets students actively model and visualise what happens when ones are regrouped, tens are introduced, etc.


In our digital age, there is also an appreciation for finger-counting techniques in unexpected arenas. Business leaders like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos have discussed using finger counting for mental arithmetic related to coding and other numeric tasks. Even astronauts have employed finger counting as a critical tool for timing calculations for rocket launches and course adjustments.


At its heart, finger counting allows students to quite literally "grasp" the fundamentals of arithmetic using tools they always have with them – their own fingers. By bringing back and embracing this ancient mathematical technique, we can demystify numbers for young learners in particular. When children are empowered to model and manipulate quantities with something as simple as wiggling their fingers, we make arithmetic far more approachable and build critical skills for later mathematical success.

How We Can Help

Mentalmatics employs a unique technique that involves using fingers for arithmetic calculations. We offer specialised training in a two-handed, four-finger abacus method and mental arithmetic exercises. This approach is referred to as the Mentalmatics™ 2-4 System™. The primary objective is to equip children with strategies that enhance their mental arithmetic capabilities. These strategies enable them to efficiently solve arithmetic problems and apply their skills to mathematical problem-solving in their academic curriculum.

To find out more, make a reservation to talk to us using the link below!

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