Numbers on fingers

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Fingers are not for calculating -- we want children calculating mentally, not dependent on counting on their fingers -- but they are excellent for learning to calculate. They are the best base-10 manipulative material around: there are 10 of them; they're free; and they're always with you.

This article describes finger games suitable for K-2 children. Find a playful pace, not slow but not pressured.



Kindergarten children find many different ways that they can show 5 fingers using two hands. The activity can also be played with 6 or 7 fingers when children are great at 5.

Setup of the activity

Show children and ask them to show that same number of fingers on two hands. Children (and adults, for that matter) very often misunderstand, at first—for example, showing five fingers on each hand—so it’s useful to be ready with a comfortable clarification, like “you’re showing me ten fingers, but I want to see just five, some of them on one hand and the rest on the other.”

Some possibilities are and and


Purpose: counting, anticipating adding, getting familiar with “five,” getting used to the idea of a constant number of fingers (in anticipation of learning all the combinations that make 10).

On their own

Until the children learn how to play "show this number a different way," the teacher shows the number, and the children respond. It’s also fun to have a child show some fingers and have the class show it a different way (or say how many they see, or how many they don’t see, which are harder games). At kindergarten level, just learning how to play the game -- learning to get the fingers up, let alone figuring out how many fingers we don’t see -- takes a while, but once the kids are used to it, you can have them take turns, one showing some fingers, and another saying how many are hidden.

With little ones, it literally takes some hand-holding to get the fingers to go up, stay put, and be visible to the other children!

First grade

Setup of the activity

A game for K-2: This game is ideal for grades 1 and 2, and can even work in K when children are fairly confident with numbers through 10. The teacher shows some number of fingers. Children might either call out how many they see, or show that number with their fingers. Optionally, teacher might show the number briefly (see Think Math! website) and have children make that number on their fingers.

When children find that too easy, playfully challenge them by doing the fingers behind your back, telling them how many they would see (if you showed them), and ask how many they wouldn’t see. “I’ve got six fingers up. How many are down?” They love the fact that they can figure it out without even looking!


Purpose: Children are learning the pairs that make ten — 3 and 7; 8 and 2; 4 and 6 — and they are seeing that order doesn’t matter: if 8 are down, 2 are up, and if 2 are down, 8 are up. Knowing these particular facts “in their sleep,” and knowing easy extensions (e.g., 30 and 70; 80 and 20) forms a strong foundation for all addition and subtraction.

On their own

These first graders are playing "how many don't you see" with ten fingers. We haven't started having them "play teacher" yet, but they can also do this "on their own."

More ideas

See Think Math! website for more.

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