Early Measurement Part 1: Unit

Measurement is part of our daily lives. When we hang a picture frame, we measure the length of the wall to find the middle (or we learn the hard way to do this next time!). When we bake cookies, we place them an inch apart on the cookie sheet. Because measuring is something we do often, it’s easy to miss the complexity that goes into it.

In this post, I’ll break down the concepts that go into measuring objects and shapes and provide you with strategies you can use at home to support your child in building important measurement skills.

Concepts within Measurement

Measurement is the process of assigning a number to an attribute of an object. Some measurable attributes are length, width, height, weight, area and volume.

Measurement is unique in that it deals with continuous quantities. Most early math skills use discrete quantities, which are quantities that can be counted in whole numbers. For example, we can count the number of squares in a chocolate bar using whole numbers. The length and width of the chocolate bar are continuous quantities because we can never get the exact measurement. We can always make our measurement more precise by breaking it down into smaller parts.

Children start thinking about measurement informally by comparing attributes. For example, a child may say that one book is longer than another book and measure this by directly placing them back to back. The question then becomes how much longer?

When we measure the length of the book, we’re doing much more than holding up a ruler and finding a number next to a hashmark. If we zoom in, we’ll see that this simple act is full of big concepts.

To demonstrate this, let’s measure the length of the book. We first have to choose a unit that makes sense for the attribute of length – let’s use centimeters. Our goal is to figure out how many centimeters make up the length of the book. To do this, we iterate, or repeat, the centimeter unit end to end until we’ve reached the end of the book. Alternatively, we can think of this as subdividing, or breaking apart, the length of the book into centimeters.

I want to highlight two essential aspects that children tend to struggle with. First, the units have to be equal length. For example, if we choose to measure the book with paperclips as the unit, all of the paperclips need to be the same length. Second, the unit must be placed end to end with no spaces.

When you think about it, a ruler is simply a device that repeats a unit over and over again! Each number on the ruler represents that many iterations of the unit.

Strategies to Support Early Measurement

Leverage Everyday Moments

Children informally compare quantities all the time, especially in the context of fairness and play. He got more than me! or My doll’s house is bigger than your doll’s house probably sound familiar. Use these opportunities to ask questions to develop your child’s understanding of measurement.

  • How do you know?
  • What makes you say that?
  • What can we use to measure them?

During your discussion, model important measurement words: tall, long, wide, heavy, length, width. As your child hears these words repeatedly, they will slowly begin to incorporate them into their vocabulary.

Solve Real Problems

The more relevant we can make to children the better! Use everyday problem solving to incorporate some measurement talk with your child.

  • How many cookies can fit in the pan if we space them one inch apart?
  • Do we have enough space for all of the books on the shelf?
  • How many pieces of paper would it take to cover the table?

Measure with Physical Units

Have your child measure the length of objects you have laying around the house with physical units. This can be blocks, cubes, paperclips, etc. In order to measure this way, your child will have to iterate the unit, placing it end to end. This helps them build the conceptual understanding of measurement as repeated units.

Create a Ruler

Have your child create their own ruler by iterating a standard unit and marking it on a piece of paper. For an inch ruler, cut a strip of paper that is one inch long or use a cube with one inch sides. The experience of building their own ruler will help your child have a better understanding of what the numbers on the ruler actually mean.

Take Action

  • Listen carefully to your child while they play this week. Try and find at least one opportunity to ask them a measurement question.
  • The next time you measure something, take a moment to really think about the process. What do the hashmarks and numbers really mean?
  • Stay tuned for the next post in this measurement series – we’ll dive into decomposing and composing shapes!


Feikes, David., Schwingendorf, Keith. and Gregg, Jeff. (2018) Children’s Mathematical Learning. Retrieved from this website.

Goldenberg, et al. (2014). Developing Essential Understanding of Geometry and Measurement: Pre-K-Grade 2. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Platas, Linda. (2018). Measuring Up! Measurement in the Preschool Classroom. Development and Research in Early Math Education. Retrieved from this website.

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