The question, "Is it OK for a child to count on his fingers?" came up recently.
My thoughts below...
In a word, YES! When a child is just learning about the concept of numbers, it is fine for her to use her fingers. The keywords here, though, are " just learning".
Young children do not have a grasp of the abstract value of numbers and their representation in symbols. It is a very tough concept when you stop to think about it. When kids are just learning, we try to encourage them to relate physical objects to the symbolic numbers. As they mature, kids' minds can comprehend that the symbol for 2 (what we think of as the number 2) is really representing 2 objects (whatever they may be).
-Why do some kids use their fingers when learning how to count while others don't?
Some kids use their fingers while others don't for a variety of reasons. If the child was taught to count by only seeing her parents use their fingers, that child probably doesn't have many other frames of reference for what numbers can symbolize. As a parent, we can certainly use fingers to count with our children, but we also need to make sure we count using books, toys, crackers, blocks, etc. so children see that numbers represent many different types of objects, not just fingers.
- Is a child who depends on finger counting at a disadvantage when it comes to mastering mathematical concepts? Why or why not?
A young child who relies on finger counting is only at a disadvantage if he doesn't make the leap to the abstract. If he cannot comprehend that numbers are used to count multiple items, he may struggle with higher level math skills. We should strive to use finger counting in the most basic of math foundation building and then stretch our kids in other ways. We certainly don't want children to think numbers "stop" at 10, (or 20 if they count their toes).
- What suggestions can you give a parent who wants to help their child improve their math skills and lessen their dependence on finger counting?
Try having kids count a variety of objects. Start by counting fingers 1-10, and then repeat the process with blocks, books, toys, etc. With the new objects (not fingers), introduce numbers 11-20). Move slowly from 3D objects to 2D objects to see if your child can still count things that he cannot hold in his hand (but can still point to). After that, have kids try to simply look at small numbers of things and "know" that there are 2 balls (instead of having to touch and count each one individually).
Most importantly, exude the idea to your child that math is fun! A positive attitude about math, whether real or feigned, from a parent goes a long way in the long run.