A new study has found that using their fingers can help young children learn math skills more effectively than some traditional classroom methods.

Boy Counting On Fingers
Credit: Daniel Jedzura/Shutterstock

My son may be in sixth-grade advanced math, but there are still times when I still catch him hiding his hands under the table and counting on his fingers when he's doing his homework. Busted! But guess what? Not only is there nothing wrong with using this method, but according to new research, it turns out finger counting may actually be an important part of learning.

Who knew?

The study comes from Professor Tim Jay, from Sheffield Hallam University, and Dr. Julie Betenson, from the University of Bristol, who analyzed the behavior of about 140 students ages 6 and 7. The kids were given different combinations of counting and number games. Some played games involving number symbols, like dominoes, while others were asked to play finger games—things like holding up a given number of fingers, numbering fingers 1 though 5, or tracing colored lines using a particular finger. A third group learned numerical skills through "business as usual" methods in class with their teachers.

Here's what the researchers found: The kids who did not take part in any of the games but learned in the classroom with their teacher performed the poorest. The group who took part in the games like dominoes performed a little better, and the ones who used a combination of games and finger-training exercises performed significantly better.

"This study provides evidence that fingers provide children with a bridge between different representations of numbers, which can be verbal, written, or symbolic," Jay explained. "Combined finger training and number games could be a useful tool for teachers to support children's understanding of numbers."

Good point, Professor—and one my son will be relieved to hear.

Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and mom of two who writes about parenting and pop culture. Check out her website holleeactmanbecker.com for more, and then follow her on Instagram and Twitter.