Australian and New Zealand early childhood curricula recognise that for children to become effective communicators they need to show an increasing understanding of measurement. Teaching measurement in early childhood settings relies on children developing number sense and an understanding of the concepts of geometry.
One of the common misconceptions young children display in measurement is related to conservation. For example, some children might think that the same length of string is longer if it is laid out straight rather than curled, or that four cups of water in two different sized containers is not the same amount. Providing children with ample experiences that reveal potential misconceptions and difficulties can also prevent other misconceptions from forming.
A learning sequence for teaching measurement in early childhood
It is generally accepted that there is a learning sequence that can be used to develop an understanding of effective processes (eg, Van de Walle, Karp & Bay-Williams 2013; Booker, Bond, Sparrow & Swan 2010) in all the measurement topics (length, area, volume and capacity, angle, mass, time, temperature and value or money).
Identify the attribute
To measure is to find out about ‘how much’ of a particular attribute there is. Ensure children understand what attribute they are measuring before they begin to measure. Consider a person. What is it that is going to be measured? Is it the height, weight or width of the person, or do you want to find out their temperature or how old they are? Children need to recognise that finding the height of something, refers to the attribute of length.
Compare and order
Focusing on the aspects of comparing and ordering will help children to consolidate the informal process of measuring. Some terms are essentially meaningless unless they are discussed in context or comparison with something else. For example, Is my pencil longer than yours? I am taller than you; an elephant is heavier than a cow; it takes longer to walk to school than to catch the bus.
Use of the correct terminology is also vital for establishing a robust understanding of the attribute to be measured – it is more helpful to talk about something being taller, longer, heavier or taking up more space than using a broad term such as ‘bigger’.
Use non-standard and standard units of measurement
Once we decide what to measure, we work out how to measure it. This means choosing what instruments are needed: scales, tape measure, or a thermometer, for instance, or just a piece of string. In the early stages, we use informal measurement. It is not important to use formal measurement or formal measuring tools.
The importance of estimation
Something that is important to recognise when teaching measurement in early childhood is that no measurement is totally accurate, no matter what tool is used. It is an approximation, and to help children to learn about measurement we need to promote and practise the skills of estimation. Also, many measurement situations do not require exact measurements, which makes estimation an integral part of everyday life. As adults, we often use personal referents to estimate, such as using our height to estimate how tall something is, or our pace to approximate a metre. When teaching measurement in early childhood settings we should encourage children to use their own personal benchmarks, to value the usefulness of estimation and recognise that our ability to estimate improves with practice and over time.
Encourage children to make estimations through questioning: “Do you think the table is longer than the bench? How can we find out?” Give children the chance to take a risk; there is never a wrong estimation! The skill of estimating improves with practice.
Activities to support teaching measurement
- Provide different lengths of guttering and piping for children to arrange, match, compare and link together. Challenge the children to make the longest waterway they can.
- Set up a washing line and provide pegs and a washing basket containing different length scarves, socks, ties and skirts. Challenge the children to hang the socks in order from shortest to longest.
- Roll out a large piece of paper on the floor and invite children to dip the wheels of toy vehicles in paint and roll them on the paper to make long wavy tracks. The children should choose different colours so each track can be identified and followed easily. Give out some tape measures and ask the children to measure their tracks. Help them attempt to bend their tape measures around the wavy tracks. Try a couple of times then ask the children why it is not working. Suggest you try again but this time use string. Help each child lay the string along their track. Cut the string, lift it and stretch it out against the tape measure to find the actual length.
Capacity & volume
- Young children need no encouragement to fill and empty boxes and containers. Offer them containers made from different materials that make a surprising sound when you drop an object in. Model the words “full up”, “all gone” and “no more” as they play. Can they guess in advance how many items it will take to fill the container?
- Put out a rain gauge or a jar with straight see-through sides. Every day, inspect how much water is in the gauge and make a mark on the side to show where the water is up to. How many days before the jar is full?
- Give each child a bucket and ask them to stand in a long line. Pour water into the first child’s bucket and ask them to pass the water down the line, from one bucket to the next. Ask the children about the amount of water left in the last bucket.
- Provide sponges for children to compare the dry and wet weight.
- Bury metal coins, plastic coins, glass gems, plastic jewels and costume jewellery and provide weighing scales for children to weigh and compare their finds.
- Ask the children to form a very large circle. Stand in the middle, pick out an object, hold it up in the air and drop it. Watch it descend and land then ask the children if they can describe how it fell. Could they tell from watching how the object moved whether it was heavy or light? Repeat with the other objects. Ask the children to spread out and find a space. Tell the children that you are going to call out the name of an object. Ask them to think about whether it is heavy or light and then move like the object would if it was thrown in the air.
- Provide sand timers and ask, “Who can build the tallest tower before the sand runs out?”
- Display a pictorial ‘Day in the life of a builder’ on an easel. Include pictures of builders arriving at work, working, taking tea breaks, having lunch, receiving deliveries and going home.
- Provide bottles with different sized holes in the bottom and jugs and watering cans with different spouts and sprinklers for children to use to experience fast and slow flow.
This article was based on content from these popular Essential Resources titles:
- Developing Early Maths Skills Outdoors by Marianne Sargent
- Developing Early Maths through Story by Marion Leeper and Tracey Muir
- Engaging with Mathematics through Picture Books by Tracey Muir, Sharyn Livy, Leicha Bragg, Julie Clark, Jill Wells & Catherine Attard
- Maths is All Around You by Marianne Knaus
For more on teaching maths in early childhood, see Marianne Knaus’ article Using incidental opportunities to talk about maths and our other articles on mathematical concepts.
Booker, G., Bond, D., Sparrow, L. & Swan, P. 2010. Teaching primary mathematics (4th edn). Sydney: Pearson, Australia.
Van de Walle, J.A., Karp, K.S. & Bay-Williams, J.M. 2013. Elementary and middle school mathematics: Teaching developmentally (8th edn). Upper Saddle River NJ: Pearson.