Math Skills – Measurement


Measurement is all about figuring out how to describe how much of something there is. This is very important to children at a young age, as you can tell by listening to them: “I’m bigger than him.” “She has more chocolate milk than I do.” “I want more train cars so my train can be longer.” “That’s too heavy for me to carry.” “Can I have five more minutes at the playground?” “Can I eat just three peas?” “Whose tower is taller?”

Developmental Stages

In the first year, children learn to judge short distances – they can figure out how far they have to reach their arm to get a toy, or how far they have to step to get to the next stair.

  • Between 1 and 2 years: they can understand that three crackers is more food than one cracker. However, they also have misconceptions. For example, if you break one cookie into three pieces, they may believe there are now more cookies than before.
  • Age 2 – 3: can correctly use measurement related terms to describe something, like: big, small, fast, slow, heavy, light
  • Age 3 – 4: can compare objects to other objects: correctly say which is bigger or smaller, heavier or lighter. They can generally only focus on one attribute as a time. So, if you had a tall skinny container and a short fat one that held the same volume, they could say: this is taller and this is shorter, or this is skinny and that is fat. But, they would not be able to understand that they were the same size overall.
  • Age 4 – 5: start to understand measurement of time: morning, afternoon, earlier, later; can name the days of the week, name months and seasons. Can measure with non-standard units – like: this board is five me-hands wide. Can look at two containers and tell you which holds more. Explain over time that size descriptions can be relevant to what we’re talking about. A HUGE mouse would be smaller than a tiny elephant. Measuring them helps us to describe their differences clearly.
  • Age 6: For measurement to truly make sense, kids first have to have a good number sense. They need to truly grasp that five is more than four, and nine is smaller than ten. They need to understand written number symbols to be able to read rulers, scales, and measuring cups. Working on these concepts will help them move forward to measuring.
  • 7 – 8: Can use a tool like a yardstick over and over again to measure a large area; can start to weigh things – with balance scales, then standard scales. Can learn the importance of using standard units of measurement to communicate with others
  • In later years, they start using fractional number more: 4 1/2 pounds, 14.2 meters, etc. They also learn to understand negative numbers, which helps them understand temperatures, and debt.

Note: there are more details on development, including core standards for kindergarten and first grade in our lesson plan on Measurement.

Activities / Ideas to play with

These are in order from basic ideas for toddlers, to more sophisticated ideas for elementary age children. You can also find more ideas and recommended kids’ books in our lesson plan on Measurement.

Notice and talk about the sizes of things: “Wow that was heavy!” “You have more than me.” “That took a long time.” “How many steps will it take to get from here to there?”

Comparing: the most basic level is just comparing a couple piles of objects – which is more, which is less? Once they’re really grasping that idea, then compare two objects – which is bigger. Once they’ve wrapped their mind around that, then put three objects in order – small, medium, large. Or compare the lengths of three ribbon. Then compare four, then more, in order from smallest to biggest.

Use opposite words to describe both sides of a comparison: “my shoes are bigger than yours and your shoes are smaller than mine.”

While playing, talk about quantities: whose tower is taller? Can we measure how far we can jump? Will four of these blocks fit inside there?

Cook together, following recipes. Talk about volume measurements – “I need a big cup of flour. I need a little cup of sugar, and a little spoon of salt.”

Use a timer – helps give a sense of time.

Use unifix cubes or legos to measure other items: how many cubes tall is the snowman? How many Duplos tall is this plant? (the photo at the top of this post is from Love, Laugh, Learn’s post on measuring amaryllis plants.) Check out Imagination tree’s post on this. (Assembling a 6 cube tall measuring tool and then a 12 cube tall tool makes measuring MUCH more concrete than just using a ruler and saying something is 6 inches tall and 12 inches tall.)

Introduce measuring tools like rulers, measuring tapes, thermometers, measuring cups and spoons and scales into play and craft activities. Start exploring how to use these tools.

Shared origin: If they’re comparing two objects, they have to line them up first… for example, to compare the length of two pencils, we first have to be sure that the eraser ends are lined up, then compare the tips. If they’re measuring with a ruler, make sure they always line up the zero end of the ruler with one edge of the object.

Estimate, then measure. They estimate by comparing things to objects they know well – “that’s about three times as tall as Dad.” (Kids under five typically can’t estimate well.)

Use non-standard measurements and standard. We often discover fractions while measuring. If I’m using a pencil to see how many pencils tall my block tower is, I might discover it’s more than three pencils tall, but less than 4 pencils tall. Is it three and a quarter? three and a half? We then come to discover why units of measurement are divisible. It helps to be able to say something is 73 mm instead of “a little more than 7 cm”

Find info about other math skills and how to teach them: foundational math skills.

Check out this fabulous and comprehensive article about how kids develop measurement skills and how adults can help: Measurement at Home.


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