Start your child's math learning early with measuring activities.

Measuring Activities for Toddlers

by Pamela Martin

Every mom knows--or soon learns--that children begin learning immediately after birth, when they start to touch and taste everything in their world. By toddlerhood, that curiosity is a pretty well-refined skill, sometimes even blossoming into “get-into-everything-itis.” Instead of throwing your hand up in exasperation, channel Junior’s natural curiosity into measuring activities that will give him a head start on future math and science classes.


Like sneaking broccoli into spaghetti sauce and carrots into dessert, modeling lets you teach your preschooler without her even realizing there’s a lesson going on. Start the whole math thing rolling by using measurement-related terms like big and small or short and tall. Keep it going with time-related phrases like “before lunch” and “after your nap” to build those ideas. Talk at the dinner table about what happened today and plans for tomorrow. This kind of vocabulary development means your child has the words to describe the measuring concepts as she learns them.

Pour and Play

As hard as it can sometimes be to remember, sand and water play do serve a purpose beyond simply making a mess or keeping a toddler occupied while Mom makes lunch. By playing with different sizes of cups, scoops, spoons and containers, toddlers begin to develop a sense of volume. You can extend this by asking, “How many spoons do we need to fill the cup?” or “Is the little bottle heavier than the big pan?”

Take this another step farther by mixing rice, beans and dried corn. Give your toddler funnels with different-sized openings and let him discover which bean or grain will slide through each opening size. Allow him the freedom to figure it out on his own before offering a lot of suggestions to increase his problem-solving skills, too.

Move measuring into the real world by cooking with your toddler. Whether you are making a simple trail mix, mixing play dough or creating a dinner for Dad, scooping, scraping and pouring the fixings is a fun way to reinforce the idea of volume and measurement.

Teach-Me Toys

Nested boxes and graduated stacking rings provide practice with comparing, especially if you use words like “bigger” and “smaller” while you play together. When your child can regularly stack the toys in order, let her stack books on the table with the largest on the bottom, or make the idea a little more challenging by asking her to put pictures of items in order from smallest to largest, using pictures that clearly show the size difference. For example, give your child three or four pictures of flowers, with each one drawn slightly larger than the next. When she masters that task, mix it up a little by asking her to sort pictures of familiar items--like an apple, an elephant and a person--when the pictures don’t show the comparative sizes.

Teach your child to measure distance by helping her figure out how many steps it takes to get from her bedroom door to the kitchen. The old growth chart on the door jamb is an easy way to introduce length, while using bathroom or kitchen scales jump-starts learning about weight.


Get double benefits by sharing books about measurement with your toddler, fostering an enthusiasm for math and for reading. “The Grouchy Ladybug,” by Eric Carle, “Inch by Inch,” by Leo Lionni, “The Blue Balloon,” by Mick Inkpen and “Tall,” by Jez Alborough will help you explore size. Discover other measurement concepts with “Cluck O’Clock,” by Kes Gray, “My Grandmother’s Clock,” by Geraldine McCaughrean, “A Second Is a Hiccup,” by Hazel Hutchins, or “Mr. Archimedes Bath,” by Pamela Allen. Other titles that you both might enjoy include “The Best Bug Parade” and “Just Enough Carrots,” by Stuart J. Murphy, “Pigs in the Pantry: Fun With Math and Cooking,” by Amy Axelrod and “How Big Is a Foot?” by Rolf Myller.

About the Author

Pamela Martin has been writing since 1979. She has written newsletter articles and curricula-related materials. She also writes about teaching and crafts. Martin was an American Society of Newspaper Editors High School Journalism Fellow. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Teaching in elementary education from Sam Houston State University and a Master of Arts in curriculum/instruction from the University of Missouri.

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