FAQ: He Won’t Stop Finger-Counting

“My oldest son has somehow developed the horrid habit of counting on his fingers. We worked on the math facts all summer. He knows the answers in simple form, such as 9 + 4, but if it’s in a bigger problem like 249 + 54, he counts up to add or counts down to subtract, all using fingers. My younger children have no problem with mental math, but he can’t seem to get it. Are there any tips or tricks to stop this?”

New Crutches

Counting on fingers is not a horrid habit, it is a crutch. Please think for a moment about the purpose of crutches. The blasted things are an uncomfortable nuisance, but there are times when you can’t get anywhere without them. And if you need them, it does you no good for a friend to insist you should crawl along on your own.

That is how your son feels right now about his fingers. He is struggling with something his younger siblings find easy, and he can tell that you are frustrated. His confidence is broken, in a cast, and needs time for healing. So he falls back on what he knows he can do, counting up the answer.

Think positive: this means he still believes that math ought to make sense — that to understand what he is doing is more important than to guess at an answer. You want him to value sense-making, because otherwise he will try to memorize his way through middle school and high school math. That is the road to disaster.

“Schools spend a lot of time working with young children to get these facts memorized, but many children aren’t ready for that task yet. They’ll count on their fingers, and may be reprimanded for it.
“What happens when a person becomes embarrassed about counting on their fingers? If they still want to think, they’ll hide it. That’s the better option. The worse option that way too many students choose? They start guessing. When math becomes too incomprehensible, or not living up to someone else’s expectations becomes too painful, many students give up on math, and then they just guess.
“We count on our fingers as part of a thinking process. Perhaps the thing I want to figure can be memorized. But if I haven’t memorized it yet myself, the most efficient way to figure it will likely involve fingers.

—Sue VanHattum

The Problem of Transfer

What you describe is called the problem of transfer, and it is one of the huge, unsolved problems of education.

We can train someone to do a simple, limited task such as answering flash cards. But how do we get that knowledge to sink in, to become part of the mind, so they can use it in all sorts of different situations?

No one has figured that out.

There is no easy solution. It requires patience, and providing a variety of experiences, and patience, and pointing out connections, and asking the student to think of connections, and lots more patience.

Some Things to Try

It might help to do fewer math problems in a day, so you can take time to work more deeply on each one. Talk together about the different ways you might solve it. Make it a challenge: “Can we think of three different ways to do it?”

In math, there is never just one way to get a solution. Thinking about alternatives will help your son develop that transfer of skills.

Or pick up some workbooks that target mental math methods. The Mental Math workbook series by Jack Hope and Barbara and Robert Reys will help him master the techniques your younger kids learned without effort. It may still take him longer to do a calculation than what you are used to with the other children, but these books will give him a boost in recognizing the types of mental tools he can use.

Here are a few of my previous blog posts that include mental math tips:

Or perhaps encourage him to keep using his fingers, but to switch to a more efficient system, such as Chisenbop. According to math education expert Jo Boaler, research shows that finger-counting supports mathematical understanding.

Mental Math: A Battle Worth Fighting

Jumping into mental math is hard for an older child who wasn’t taught that way. I believe it’s a battle worth fighting, because those mental math techniques build understanding of the fundamental properties of numbers.

But the main goal is for him to recognize his options and build flexibility, not to do each calculation as fast as possible.

And be sure he no longer needs those crutches before you try to take them away.


Photo credits: “Stryde Walking To School on his New Crutches” by Jim Larrison and “Silhouette of a boy” by TimOve via Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

Click for details about Let's Play Math bookThis post is an excerpt from my book Let’s Play Math: How Families Can Learn Math Together—and Enjoy It, as are many of the articles in my Let’s Play Math FAQ series.

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FAQ: Trouble with Worksheets

“Worksheet problems make my daughter’s brain freeze. Even simple things such as “2 + ___ = 2″ confuse her. What can I do?”

Can your daughter do math if you put away the worksheet and ask her a real-life problem: “I have a lunch sack. I put two cookies into the sack, and then I give it to you. When you look into the sack, you see two cookies there. Can you tell me what was in the sack at the beginning, before I put my cookies in?”

Or can she solve problems when the answer isn’t zero? Could she figure out how many you started with if she saw four cookies when she looked in the sack?

The idea of having a number for “nothing” can seem strange to young children.

Worksheet Calculations Are Not Math

Can your daughter think mathematically, without calculations?

The symbols on the worksheet are not math. They are just one way of recording how we think about number relationships, and not a very natural way for children. Mathematics is a way of thinking — paying attention to the relationship between ideas and reasoning out connections between them. Encourage your daughter to notice these relationships and wonder about them.

Try watching Christopher Danielson’s video “One is one … or is it?” together, and then see how many different examples of “one” she can find around the house.

The Power of Story

Many kids at this age have a hard time with abstract number math — then their brains will grow up, and they’ll be able to do it. Development varies from one child to another.

When I do worksheets with young children, I turn each equation into a little story. Like the “cookies in a lunch sack” story above.

Sometimes we use blocks or other manipulatives to count on, but often the mental picture of a story is enough. Having something solid to imagine helps the child reason out the relationships between the numbers and symbols.


Quote photo: Carl Vilhelm Holsøe ‘Interior with a mother reading aloud to her daughter’ 19th Century. Image from Plum Leaves via Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

Click for details about Let's Play Math bookThis post is an excerpt from my book Let’s Play Math: How Families Can Learn Math Together—and Enjoy It, as are many of the articles in my Let’s Play Math FAQ series.

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Playing with Math Shapes

Playing-with-shapesI love it when a plan — or rather, a series of math thoughts — comes together.

On Monday, Emily Grosvenor (author of the Tessalation! picture book) asked me how parents who are insecure in math could help their children learn through play, and I responded with this quote from my Let’s Play Math book:

If you are intimidated by numbers, you can look for patterns of shape and color. Pay attention to how they grow. Talk about what your children notice.

But I wasn’t entirely satisfied with that answer. So many adults have come away from their own school experience thinking math is only numbers. Even with shapes, isn’t it the numbers about them — how many sides, what size of angles, calculate the the area or perimeter — that are important? That’s what school math tends to focus on.

Those of us who are comfortable with math know that there are many more things to notice and think about than just numbers. We know that it’s this noticing, thinking, and wondering that is at the heart of math. And that just playing with shapes can build a powerful foundation for future math learning.

And then yesterday, Malke Rosenfeld posted a beautiful article about a paper manipulative created by Paula Krieg. Which included this video:

The ability to create, and maintain, and manipulate shapes mentally — that’s the goal. Just like kids who can put numbers together in their heads, kids who can rotate, flip, and think of how shapes fit together in their heads have a powerful tool to analyze not only simple shape puzzles, but dividing up an area that’s a more complex room shape … to look at a piece of artwork … or look at a building … For these kids, all the world around becomes a playground to use mathematical ideas.

— Doug Clements
Problem Solving Development: Composing Shapes

Of course, pattern blocks are good for much more than just filling in worksheet pictures. But I love this peek into how a child’s understanding grows, in bits and spurts — without any numbers at all — until the world itself becomes a playground for mathematical ideas.

Want more?

You know what? Children like mathematics. Children see the world mathematically … When we do a puzzle, when we count things, when we see who’s got more, or who’s taller … Play and mathematics are not on opposite sides of the stage.

— Doug Clements
Why Early Childhood is the Right Time to Start Learning Math

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Active Math Game: Rock

Gordon Hamilton of Math Pickle posted Rock, a new active math game for grades K–2. If you have a set of kids and a few minutes to spare, give it a try!

How to Play Rock

  • Everyone makes a rock shape with eyes closed.
  • Everyone chooses a number: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 …
  • Teacher calls out numbers consecutively, starting at 0.
  • When a student hears their number being called they immediately raise a hand. When the teacher tags the hand, they stand up.
  • If more than one hand was raised, those students lose. They become your helpers, tagging raised hands.
  • If only one hand was raised, that child wins the round.


“Each game takes about 45 seconds,” Hamilton says. “This is part of the key to its success. Children who have not learned the art of losing are quickly thrown into another game before they have a chance to get sad.”

The experience of mathematics should be profound and beautiful. Too much of the regular K-12 mathematics experience is trite and true. Children deserve tough, beautiful puzzles.

Gordon Hamilton

What Happens When Grownups Play Rock

What are the best numbers to pick? Patrick Vennebush hosted on online version of the game at his Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks blog a few years back, though we didn’t have to bend over into rocks‌—‌which is a good thing for some of us older folks.

Vennebush also posted a finger-game version suitable for small groups of all ages, called Low-Sham-Bo:

  • On the count of 1-2-3, each person “throws” out a hand showing any number of fingers from zero to five.
  • The winner is the person who throws the smallest unique number.

You may want to count “Ready, set, go!” for throwing out fingers, so the numbers in the count don’t influence the play.

The official name for this sort of game is Lowest Unique Bid Auction.

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Socks Are Like Pants, Cats Are Like Dogs


Support This New Book from Natural Math

Socks Are Like Pants, Cats Are Like Dogs by Malke Rosenfeld and Gordon Hamilton is filled with a diverse collection of math games, puzzles, and activities exploring the mathematics of choosing, identifying and sorting. The activities are easy to start and require little preparation.

The publisher’s crowdfunding goal is $4,000. The book is almost ready to go to press, and I can hardly wait to see it!

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Math Game: Chopsticks


Feature photo above by Harry (Phineas H) via Flicker (CC BY 2.0).

Math Concepts: counting up to five, thinking ahead.
Players: two or more.
Equipment: none.

How to Play

Each player starts with both hands as fists, palm down, pointer fingers extended to show one point for each hand. On your turn, use one of your fingers to tap one hand:

  • If you tap an opponent’s hand, that person must extend as many extra fingers on that hand (in addition to the points already there) as you have showing on the hand that tapped. Your own fingers don’t change.
  • If you force your opponent to extend all the fingers and thumb on one hand, that makes a “dead hand” that must be put behind the player’s back, out of the game.
  • If you tap your own hand, you can “split” fingers from one hand to the other. For instance, if you have three points on one hand and only one on the other, you may tap hands to rearrange them, putting out two fingers on each hand. Splits do not have to end up even, but each hand must end up with at least one point (and less than five, of course).
  • You may even revive a dead hand if you have enough fingers on your other hand to split. A dead hand has lost all its points, so it starts at zero. When you tap it, you can share out the points from your other hand as you wish.

The last player with a live hand wins the game.

When a two-points hand taps a one-point hand, that player must put out two more fingers.
When a two-points hand taps a one-point hand, that player must put out two more fingers.

Continue reading Math Game: Chopsticks

Teaching the Standard Algorithms

Peter Pan Arithmetic Quiz

[Feature photo above by Samuel Mann, Analytical Engine photo below by Roͬͬ͠͠͡͠͠͠͠͠͠͠͠sͬͬ͠͠͠͠͠͠͠͠͠aͬͬ͠͠͠͠͠͠͠ Menkman, both (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr.]

Babbage's Analytical Engine

An algorithm is a set of steps to follow that produce a certain result. Follow the rules carefully, and you will automatically get the correct answer. No thinking required — even a machine can do it.

This photo shows one section of the first true computer, Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Using a clever arrangement of gears, levers, and switches, the machine could crank out the answer to almost any arithmetic problem. Rather, it would have been able to do so, if Babbage had ever finished building the monster.

One of the biggest arguments surrounding the Common Core State Standards in math is when and how to teach the standard algorithms. But this argument is not new. It goes back at least to the late 19th century.

Here is a passage from a book that helped shape my teaching style, way back when I began homeschooling in the 1980s…

Ruth Beechick on Teaching Abstract Notation

Understanding this item is the key to choosing your strategy for the early years of arithmetic teaching. The question is: Should you teach abstract notation as early as the child can learn it, or should you use the time, instead, to teach in greater depth in the mental image mode?


Abstract notation includes writing out a column of numbers to add, and writing one number under another before subtracting it. The digits and signs used are symbols. The position of the numbers is an arbitrary decision of society. They are conventions that adult, abstract thinkers use as a kind of shorthand to speed up our thinking.

When we teach these to children, we must realize that we simply are introducing them to our abstract tools. We are not suddenly turning children into abstract thinkers. And the danger of starting too early and pushing this kind of work is that we will spend an inordinate amount of time with it. We will be teaching the importance of making straight columns, writing numbers in certain places, and other trivial matters. By calling them trivial, we don’t mean that they are unnecessary. But they are small matters compared to real arithmetic thinking.

If you stay with meaningful mental arithmetic longer, you will find that your child, if she is average, can do problems much more advanced than the level listed for her grade. You will find that she likes arithmetic more. And when she does get to abstractions, she will understand them better. She will not need two or three years of work in primary grades to learn how to write out something like a subtraction problem with two-digit numbers. She can learn that in a few moments of time, if you just wait.

— Ruth Beechick
An Easy Start in Arithmetic (Grades K-3)
(emphasis mine)

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