Mathematics

Measuring up: teaching children about non-standard units

Measures – we adults use them every day and all day, responding to our alarm clock in the morning and checking our pedometer step count at the end of the day. 

On a daily basis, we use measures for time, distance, weight, temperature, volume and capacity, and that’s before you consider the more ‘abstract’ measurements we use for things like our power supplies or our smartphone storage (in my case, the latter is increasingly consumed by photos featuring, or taken by, my grandchild).

Young children sleep, eat and play according to the natural rhythm of their own body clocks, unbothered by any measurements. But at some stage we need to introduce them to measurements and to the concept of measuring.

We use systems of standard measurements for consistency and to avoid confusion (or at least, to try to avoid it). Around the world, most countries use the Metric or Imperial systems of measurements. Yet in the UK it remains common to mix the Imperial and Metric system of measurements, so that we buy our milk by the litre but our beer by the pint; temperatures are reported in centigrade yet we estimate our journey distance in miles. 

There are occasions when we use ‘measures’ that are less precise but easy to relate to. My hairdresser suggests I use a blob of conditioner ‘the size of a pea,’ and occasionally, if I don’t have a tape measure to hand, I will measure and compare using a spare piece of my yarn instead. 

These ‘non-standard measures’ form part of our everyday lexicon – we might describe something as ‘a stone’s throw’ away, or say that someone is ‘a head taller’ than another person. 

How many sleeps to go?

Many parents and grandparents do use basic forms of measurement with young children when, for example, we talk about how many ‘sleeps’ remain before a particular event, be it a birthday, a special trip or Christmas Day.

Daisy is gradually becoming familiar with standard and non-standard measurements. Mummy and Daddy agree on a set amount of playtime that she can have before bed, or before getting dressed, and then measure it using a smartphone timer with an alarm, which helps to reduce any drama about ending the play session. On a similar note, they also use their smartphones to ensure that Daisy brushes her teeth for no less than two minutes – a ritual that has led to her current fascination with the stopwatch app.

While these routines involve standard measurements of time in minutes, Daisy has also been introduced to the concept of non-standard units. Last month, I wrote a blog about using conkers as a way to weigh fruit and vegetables and compare the weights. Any fun comparison activity like this can help introduce a child to ‘measuring’ and to gradually show the different ways that we can measure.

A child holds a coiled measuring tape in her hand
Inches and centimetres are a little difficult to conceptualise at Daisy’s age

Rather than using traditional standard measurements, the most successful route to introducing measurements to young children is by using something that is familiar to them. These non-standard measures allow children to practise the processes of measuring, without the complicated precision of standard measuring, which relies both on dexterity and a solid knowledge of numbers. 

Non-standard units give children something familiar as a point of comparison and help as they continue to conceptualise their world.

Best foot forward

This week I’ve been remotely guiding Daisy (and her Daddy) through another measuring activity that might prove useful to other parents and grandparents who might want to introduce such concepts to a child or grandchild. With only a cereal box and some basic craft supplies you can create some cardboard measures for length, and trigger some interesting discoveries. 

A tape measure, pen, scissors and thin cardboard – the tools needed for an educational activity around measurement
This low-cost activity shouldn’t require much prep

In this instance, Daisy stood on some cardboard and Daddy drew around each of her feet separately; I recommend using thin cardboard such as an empty cereal packet or other food packaging. If you have enough packaging, it’s useful to repeat the drawing, so that you have at least four or more outlines of feet, as this makes the activity a bit easier (Daisy’s Daddy produced eight of them for this activity).

Then the outlines needed to be cut out, to create Daisy’s cardboard measures for length. Next, Daisy was able to lay the outlines along the edge of her table, heel to toe, to see how many ‘feet’ long her table was. This was then repeated for the dining table and for Daddy’s desk. 

A child's feet are shown next to a cardboard template measure that was completed by drawing around her foot
Daisy’s template matched up!

With a small amount of Blue Tack on the back of each outline, it was also possible to use the feet to do some vertical measuring! Daisy positioned the feet on the door frame so that she could stand against the line of feet to see how tall she was: six-and-a-half Daisy feet tall! At a more reliably sunny time of year, she might even go outside with the prepared feet outlines and measure the size of her playhouse in the garden.

As part of this activity I suggested that Daddy stood on some cardboard and let Daisy draw around one of his feet, too – in part because Daddy would experience how ticklish it was having someone draw around your feet, but also because having Daddy’s foot outline meant that some interesting contrasts could be drawn. After all, a foot is an Imperial measurement and Daddy’s foot might be closer to the official unit than Daisy’s.

Throughout the activity there were opportunities to introduce the language we use to talk about lengths and making comparisons, and there’s always the opportunity to revisit this activity in years to come – Daisy should discover that as she gets taller, the number of feet required for these measurements will start to get smaller!

Granny Smith says…

  • One alternative to using a foot outline is to draw around hands and use those in the same way, or even to draw around a favourite small cuddly toy and use that outline – how many teddies long is the bed? 
  • As children become more dexterous they can use smaller non-standard measures for length that are commercially available, such as the Learning Resources Measuring Worms.

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