Measurement helps us better understand the things around us and helps us describe things to other people in a way we can both understand. Measuring with little kids does not have to be exact. In fact, it doesn’t even need to require standard tools. Non-standard measurement tools are a terrific way to give kids a real-world context for understanding measurement and easy ways to incorporate these concepts into their play. Here we share three of our favorite playful ways to introduce kids to measurement as a way to learn about and describe their world.
Scoop, dump and count!
Filling and emptying containers is a universally compelling activity for kids of all ages. Not only does it support a sense of calm and focus, but it is also a great way to give kids a foundation in understanding concepts like “how big” and “how much”.
Gather scooping materials.
Head outside and bring a bucket or bin and a container of rice, dried beans, sand, stones, water, dirt, snow or other scoopable material. Add an assortment of containers and scoops of different sizes.
Scoop, fill, dump, repeat! Welcome kids to begin exploring the materials in any way that interests them. Just seeing how containers fill and feeling the relative capacity of containers of different sizes and shapes gives kids a foundation in understanding volume and measurement. Plus, scooping and dumping tends to be universally engaging!
Offer some prompts to extend play. If kids seem ready for an extra challenge, offer some of these measurement prompts:
How many scoops does it take to fill a container?
Dump it out and try again with another scoop. How many of this scoop does it take to fill your container?
Which scoop holds the most?
Make a prediction! How many scoops will it take to fill your container? Test it out—how close was your guess?
Sort and arrange!
Sorting and arranging objects is a great way for kids to explore the differences and similarities between objects as well as their relative size.
Gather nature treasures of different sizes.
Watch the read aloud of Ants Rule by Bob Barner. Then, head outside for a nature treasure hunt and search for objects of different sizes. Print and cut out these picture cards to help kids sort objects into small (ant), medium (squirrel) and big (elephant) categories.
Sort your treasures.
Look at your collection together and notice the great range of sizes you found. Show your child the picture cards and wonder, “Do you think we could group the treasures by size, just like the animals did in Ants Rule? Place the cards down in three spots (for wee ones, you may just use “small” and “big”).
Step back and see how your child chooses to sort or arrange the treasures. If play needs a little jump-start, model a bit by placing one of the nature treasures in the small pile and say, “This one seems small to me.” Or, try purposefully putting something in the opposite category—young kids love to correct silly adult thinking!
Offer some prompts to extend play.
Invite kids to continue sorting the treasures by size. Leave the sorting set up for a while, so kids can come in and out of the play. To extend play, offer some of these prompts:
Can you arrange your treasures from smallest to biggest? Shortest to longest?
How many treasures can fit inside a bucket or container?
Which treasures take up a little bit of space in your bucket? Which ones take up a lot of space?
Take a measurement walk!
Nature is full of objects to explore and measure! To help kids explore the concepts of “how big” and “how far”, grab a piece of string, twine or ribbon and head outside for a measurement walk!
Measure objects with string! As you walk, use your string to size up the length of sticks, leaves, pine cones or other objects in your outdoor space. Try some of these prompts:
Wrap the string around a tree to see how wide the trunk is.
Count how many times you can wrap your piece of string around a around a stick, branch, rock or other object.
Place your string in a circle on the ground. How many nature treasures can fit inside it?
Measure from “here” to “there”.
Pick two objects in your outdoor space (e.g. two trees) and wonder how you can use your string to measure how far it is from “here” to “there”. To add some movement to play, try some of these ideas to explore how you could use your body to measure from “here” to “there”.
How many steps does it take to get from “here” to “there”? How many of your grown-up’s steps?
How many of your feet does it take to get from “here” to “there”? How many of your grown-up’s feet?
How many hops does it take to get from “here” to “there”? How many of your grown-up’s hops?
How many of your hands does it take to get from “here” to “there”? How many of your grown-up’s hands?
Why is this activity great for kids?
Knowing different ways to measure supports kids’ in describing the objects around them and problem solving. When kids play with the ideas of how big and how much, they are building their understanding of measurement, number skills, and spatial awareness. Imagining the many ways we can use our bodies and everyday objects to measure supports divergent thinking, an important component of creativity.
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By creativity, we mean the ability to both imagine original ideas or solutions to problems and actually do what needs to be done to make them happen. So, to help kids develop creativity, we parents need to nurture kids' imaginations and give them lots of chances to design, test, redesign and implement their ideas.
"Creativity is as important now in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”
Why, you ask? For one, it is through being creative that a person is able to get senses, sensibility and spirit working together. Simply put, without creativity, we don't think our kids will live a full life.
On a more practical level, it's also the means by which humans of all ages make an impact on the world and other people around them. A lot of heavy stuff is going to go down in our kids' lifetime, and their generation will need to imagine and implement solutions to big and very complicated problems. Although our kids are still far from public office or the boardroom, today's political and business leaders worldwide are already pointing to creativity as the most important leadership quality for the future.
Although years from the art studio or design lab, little kids can learn to think and act creatively if you give them time and the right practice.
What is Critical Thinking?
People use critical thinking skills to gather information, evaluate it, screen out distractions and think for themselves. These skills help us identify which knowledge to trust and how to use new and old knowledge together to decide what to believe or do. People also use these skills to develop arguments, make decisions, identify flaws in reasoning and to solve problems.
Also referred to as “higher-level thinking,” critical thinking draws on many other skills that matter (e.g. focus/self control, communication, making connections, and even empathy). Kids won’t fully develop critical thinking until adolescence or even adulthood, but remarkably there is lots that you can do to help your kids build its foundation during preschool and early school ages.
How do little kids build a base for such a complicated set of skills? A key building block to critical thinking is the ability to develop theories about the world and to adjust your theories as new information becomes available. Kids can practice this as they attempt to solve mysteries or actively wonder about why things are as they are. As a family, the more you ask questions, make predictions and allow kids to take active part in discovering the answers to their questions, the stronger you make their foundation for critical thinking. As kids grow out of the 3-to 5-year-olds' freewheeling relationship with reality, you can also train them to question information and see the inconsistencies or flaws in certain ways of thinking.
Why does it matter?
In a world that is increasingly saturated with media messages and where information comes from a wide range of sources that differ in quality, critical thinking is more important than ever. Kids need this skill in order to be informed and empowered consumers, to either suggest or evaluate new solutions to complicated problems, to make decisions about our society and its governance, and to form the beliefs that guide their personal and professional lives.
What are Problem Solving Skills?
When we talk about problem solving, we mean the ability to solve a problem in which the solution is not obvious and in which the possible paths to solution are many. To solve such problems, kids will need two things. First, they’ll need the self confidence and comfort to both attempt to find and persist in finding a solution. The only way to develop this is to be given the chance to struggle with ambiguous situations or open-ended problems. We parents are all guilty, from time to time, of helping kids avoid struggle or swooping in to alleviate frustration when our kid encounters challenge. The goal is actually to do the opposite whenever possible. As long as the problem is not too difficult to understand or challenging to solve, even young kids can get comfortable with the feeling of not knowing the solution and fall in love with the joy of finding a solution to a problem.
Kids also need strategies to attack problems with which they are faced. If adults are able to work with kids to solve problems “as a team” but in such a way that the children feel and act “in charge” of the decisions, adults can actually teach foundation problem solving skills and strategies through modeling. For example, when you solve a problem together, kids get practice with key parts of the process like brainstorming, testing ideas, revision and solution. It’s also pretty easy to model how to use simple strategies like trial and error or breaking a problem down into smaller parts. Although children age 1 to 7 should not be expected to name, catalog or identify when to use a particular problem solving strategy, they are able to form habits and repeat approaches once those habits or approaches have become familiar. The more problems they solve, the better they know and can use these methods.
Why does it matter?
“The highest ranked skills for students entering the workforce were not facts and basic skills; they were applied skills that enable workers to use the knowledge and basic skills they have acquired” (Source: Are They Really Ready for Work? Conference Board 2006).
Although it seems a long way to go before our young children are hitting the job market, the ability to solve challenging, ambiguous problems has already been identified as a critical skill for success in the 21st Century. With advances in technology, finding information has never been easier. However, knowing how to interpret a problem and use available information to devise a solution still needs to be learned. And, we fear that the classrooms of today are neither designed nor incentivized to teach these skills effectively. In most schools, so much time is spent learning discrete skills, that applied skills like problem solving are wildly underemphasized. In a world that demands it, it is increasingly necessary that children learn and practice these skills outside of school.