Young children are often fascinated by comparing and ordering the sizes of things. Perhaps it appeals to their innate sense of justice to determine whose apple is bigger and their equally well developed competitiveness to see who is taller. Early Years teachers build on this by providing lots of opportunities to compare and order things and begin to use non-standard measures to quantify. How many grapes balance an apple? How many cubes high is the toy garage? How many cups of tea can be poured from the teapot? At this stage, it’s important too to give children lots of opportunity to experience and use the language associated with comparison: more, less, fewer, higher, lower, taller, shorter, heavier, lighter etc. I’ve put together a few ideas for activities which support developing comparison language and you can download the document from the link at the bottom of this post.
As children move on in their understanding of measures, we move to using standard units of measure. Children often struggle with estimating length, mass or capacity using standard units and they need lots of practical opportunities to measure familiar things using these units. Wherever possible, opportunities should be found outside of the maths lesson for these activities, perhaps as part of topic work, for instance, to give them a meaningful context. Children can weigh out ingredients for their chocolate snack in technology or find the capacity of a liquid before an evaporation experiment in science, or measure how far they can jump in P.E. Another activity that can support children in becoming more familiar with units of measure is to give regular opportunities for estimating, and use these as opportunities to develop the skill of working out an unknown measure by comparing it with a known one. Estimation 180 is a great source of visuals to support this (I blogged about this site here.)
Another common difficulty for children is remembering just how many grams in a kilogram, centimetres in a metre, millilitres in a litre etc. One activity that can support this is by including counting in measures in daily counting activities, alongside counting in whole numbers, decimals and fractions etc. So, for instance, when children are counting in hundreds, also count in steps of 100 grams. I find a counting stick useful for this. Develop skills progressively. So for instance, you might count up first of all from 0 to 1 kg in steps of 100g, moving backwards and forwards along the counting stick. As children become more familiar with this, use different starting points so that they become familiar with what happens after 1 kg. At this point you have a choice of ways to count: 1100g, 1kg and 100g, 1.1 kg or 11/10 kg, and I’d suggest you use all of these ways alongside each other so that children start to also understand the equivalence of these. Doing this will also help enormously when children begin to convert units of measure.
Children often find reading scales challenging too. Again, there is no substitute for practical experience, and if you are able to have analogue scales, measuring jugs, tape measures etc. continually available in your classroom, this can be helpful in making it easier to pick up on opportunities for measurement that arise in other subject areas – a trip to hunt through the maths cupboard will probably make you less likely to do this! The Measuring Scales ITP and Measuring Cylinder ITP can also both be helpful for focused opportunities to practise measuring scales skills. Again, counting can also be useful in supporting reading scales. Most scales are in intervals of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 1000 etc. so regular opportunities to practise counting in these steps will help children to use these skills when reading scales.
One of the main problems with children working with measures, I suspect, is that we move far too quickly to working with abstract measures or with diagrams rather than working practically. I’ve been guilty of this myself – practical work involves finding equipment, it can be messy (particularly when working on capacity). But practical work can also be lots of fun and really help children connect their learning to real life situations, so I’d encourage you to do as much as possible.
There are other ideas and resources for teaching measures on my Measures Pinterest board.