Finger Awareness and Math Skills: Recent Research, and “Where is Thumbkin?”


The Atlantic magazine ran a terrific article, Why Kids Should Use Their Fingers in Math Class, and I am still blown away with the connections they make between brain activity during finger movements and during math calculation and comprehension.  Let me get out my hands and count the ways I could use this information!

They focused on research at Stanford University, and you can look at all the info Stanford has put up at .  Based on brain research, children who count on their fingers should not be criticized, they should be encouraged.  They should even be trained to do so!   It means that all those silly finger plays in preschool are teaching children something more valuable than words to a song, more valuable than following the teacher’s directions.

The bottom line:  When kids have better digital proprioception (awareness of their fingers when not looking at them, for everyone that isn’t an OT), they may have better math skills.  Sounds fishy?  Not if you understand how the brain maps information.  According to the researchers at Stanford, a very respectable academic institution, the same sections of the brain light up on PET scans during finger awareness games and calculation.  Children who play targeted finger awareness games score higher on math tests after finger training.  All that talk about how practicing my piano homework would help me in school might have been accurate.  Sorry I gave you a hard time, Mom!

It all starts in preschool with looking at your fingers, naming them to get greater awareness of them, then using them purposefully.  The Atlantic’s article has a link to some cool activities for older kids, such as tracing colored lines with fingertips that have corresponding nail colors.  But for the little ones, “Where is Thumbkin?” makes more sense.  Developmentally, building a brain that is wired for finger awareness is so much easier than rewiring an older brain.  And much more fun.  Try doing “Tommy Thumb, Tommy Thumb” with a 7 year-old.  He will think you are insulting him.

As a pediatric OT, I teach children to pay attention to their “tippies”, which is my cute term for their fingertips.  Every child knows what I mean when I tell them to put their tippies on their crayons to scribble, and when I mention that their tippies have slipped out of their scissors.  I am going to build in more finger songs into my sessions starting now.  Preschool Finger Play Songs for Hand Strengthening and Sensory Awareness  I want every child to excel at math, and it could start with finger awareness!

By Cathy Collyer

I am a licensed occupational therapist, licensed massage therapist, and certified CBT-i sleep coach in private practice in the NYC area. I have over 25 years of professional experience in adult and pediatric treatment. It has been a joy to help people of all ages improve their ability to grow and thrive! Occupational therapists are focused on enhancing a client's functioning in everyday life. We are practical healthcare providers, interested in teaching, adapting actions and environments, and building a client's useful skills for living their best life, regardless of their challenges. I am the author of five books, including "Staying In The Room: Managing Medical And Dental Care When You Have DID" and "The Practical Guide To Toilet Training the Autistic Child". I lecture on many subjects, including sleep, trauma, and development. Contact me to learn more about how I can help you achieve YOUR goals!

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