Give powerful neurons some exercises: help children to count!

Give powerful neurons some exercises: help children to count!

Author: Colin Michie

In the middle of one afternoon, you are passed the baby. Your treasured niece is just beginning to toddle. You put her on your knees, embarrassed, as this little human is watching you so carefully, not smiling, measuring you up.  What do you do?


Fingers and counting

You start to play with her fingers, counting out loud those chubby digits. You get the feeling she has had this done before. So you count in stumbling Spanish, then in French – she enjoys this and begins to wriggle. She puts her fingers up in turn for you to count, copying your movements. You turn the finger play routine into a rhyme with tickling, then clapping, a little singing – the afternoon flies past. You have attained the status of high entertainer!  Crucially, this is also oral folk tradition, education, in action. Your niece is likely to request a repeat performance!

Fingers and counting, the very concepts of numbers, seem to be linked deep within our brains. Knowing about one’s fingers appears to be intertwined with the early learning of numbers. Using fingers for counting and calculation is as old as written records. How many fingers we have, how we count on them, how they can be used for addition and subtraction has great history.

This “knowing” does not just involve vision – children who are born blind tend to use fingers in their counting. Newer systems of brain imaging and electrical activity measures show that those nerve tissues involved in number processing overlap with those involved with finger movement. Finger dexterity seems connected in several types of studies with numerical skills. Whether a number is seen visually in English or Arabic, or touched in Braille, it is represented in this same neural assembly.

The many ways to count

For children, the process of learning numbers is supported by families and playmates, in music, rhymes, songs, sports. In some communities, hopscotch, skipping or marbles might move onto dominoes or mancala games, such as hovito in the Dominican Republic or Nigerian opon ayo.  Phone apps offer a plethora of games, puzzles and spatial challenges in game form, with cartoon characters or video monsters for encouragement at all ages.

These have all been found effective for building math skills and short term memory; they promote reading and language development too. Devices often influence sleep, though, so screen times should not be excessive, or influence bed times. If children become better with numbers, quantities and sizes, they are likely to handle the rough roads of life with greater ease.

Systems for counting on our fingers, dactylonomy, are found in almost all cultures. They are as old as written records and are not just for children. The digits used may differ, with 10 being used as the base for most early African and European accounts. However, there is some variation. A senary or seximal (base 6) system is employed for instance by the NCAA for player’s uniform numbers. Base 20 was widely used in the Americas, including by the Mayans.

In Pacific Rim countries, body counting adds the wrists, elbows and chest: in the Netherlands New Guinea there is a base 27 system. Finger counting reaches a new level in the Korean Chisanbop, in which finger manipulations can be used as an abacus, to add, subtract, multiply and divide. This strategy has been found useful for those with visual impairment. Hand signals in market places, whether selling agricultural products, finance or working a sports pitch employ similar ideas of signalling with fingers.

Counting and our health

In today’s rich digital world full of choices and novel opportunities, numerical skills are valuable, particularly for our health. Could you count your daily calorie intake, for instance, estimate your heart rate or perhaps measure a liquid medicine? Can you always figure out the sugar content of that tempting ginger cake from its food label?

It is likely that between a third and a half of adults have difficulties with these sorts of tasks, particularly among those elderly suffering with long-term disorders. One of the greatest challenges for all of us can be understanding medical literature, including the directions delivered with medications or health-care products. Safety requires all of us to improve our math, then share these talents!

Being worried about numbers is something many find becomes a problem as school disappears in the rear view mirror of life. We all vary in our number skills. Giving a great start for all children, whatever their age, will improve this. All in the family will gain from positive teaching – it reduces everyone’s anxieties in the process. Whether on a shopping trip, messing in the kitchen or dancing outside, bringing hands-on numbers to small children, regularly, brings joy with interest.

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