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Play With Measurement

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.

The Guide

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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