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  • Writer's pictureCarrie S. Cutler

Measurement Outside the Worksheet: How Nonstandard Units Connect Counting to Measurement

Updated: Mar 11, 2021

In my last blog post, I described comparison as a first step in developing measurement understanding. Young children intuitively stand back to back to compare heights, for example, or use a pan balance to compare weights or explore with scoops to find out if a container holds more, holds less, or holds the same amount as another container. I shared 3 hands-on activities for building comparison concepts for height, weight, and length. You can watch videos for two of those fun comparison activities here: Capacity Comparisons and Clay Worm Comparisons.

The next phase in the development of measurement understanding--nonstandard units--begins as children start to recognize the need for a “unit” of measurement.

Kindergarten and first graders combine their counting and comparing skills along with an appropriate nonstandard unit of measurement to say not just that something is heavier, but by how much it is heavier.

Students might choose to measure length with any of the following nonstandard units:

· paper clips (large and small)

· craft sticks

· pipe cleaners

· drinking straws

For measuring weight with nonstandard units, students can try:

· flat-sided glass marbles

· plastic cubes

· ceramic tile squares

· pennies (or quarters if you’ve got ‘em)

Students can measure capacity using nonstandard units like:

· counters

· packing peanuts

· cubes

· scoops of rice or dry beans

Regardless of the item children choose to measure with, the measurement process should be an active experience with kids in the math-driver-seat exploring hands-on tasks not filling in worksheets.


Here is a hands-on activity for measuring length using a variety of nonstandard units.

Tablecloth Measuring

You can watch of video of my son, Knox doing this activity here.

What you need to create the tablecloth measuring kit:

  • a cheap rectangular plastic tablecloth—the kind like you buy at the dollar store to use for a kids’ birthday party then wad up and throw away afterwards. Cut the tablecloth in half so it’s about 4 ½ feet square.

  • scrapbooking stickers you have tucked away for the day you actually have time to make a scrapbook for your kids or your pets. (Okay, probably revealing a bit too much about my lack of creative record keeping around our house.)

  • nonstandard units such as toothpicks, paper clips, craft sticks, cotton balls, beans, drinking straws, unifix cubes, or bobby pins etc.

  • Place 4-5 “sets” of similar stickers in sections of the tablecloth. I like to use a "clump" of stickers so that when kids place the nonstandard units, the units can kind of extend into the clump. That way, kids don't have to be concerned about halves. See what I mean in this picture?

  • Use a marker to draw lines to connect the sets of stickers. These lines help guide children’s “lining up” of the nonstandard units. Without the lines, kids have a tendency to "wander" in their work.

What Kids Do:

Children use nonstandard units to measure from one set of stickers to another.

In this video, my five-year-old son Knox chose craft sticks to find out how far it is from the giraffes to the outer space stickers. Next, he switched to a different nonstandard unit—for example, drinking straws. Prior to having him lay out the straws, I ask him first to guess (reason) if it will take more or fewer straws than it did craft sticks to measure from the giraffes to the outer space stickers. Doing this prompts him to use proportional reasoning and to consider a BIG idea in measurement:

  • The number of units needed to make the measurement is inversely related to the size of the unit.

The larger the unit, the fewer you'll need. The smaller the unit, the more you'll need. So a short unit (like craft sticks) takes more units to do the measurement than a long unit (like straws).

This is so awesome for kids to DISCOVER! And Tablecloth Measuring helps them do it!


Here’s a great activity for nonstandard units for weight.

How Big Is Your Kiss?

What You Need:

· vaseline

· marker

· split peas

· index cards


Kids put a dab of Vaseline on their lips. They kiss their index card then trace around the kiss with a marker. Next, they cover their kiss with split peas, making sure to lay the peas flat, edge to edge, as they cover their kiss. Finally, they count the number of peas to find the area of their kiss.


Capacity and Volume are best learned not through formulas but through concept-building, hands-on tasks.

I like to use 3 Act Tasks to lend real-world context, especially when I’m confined to the classroom walls or a virtual classroom space.

You can find over 100 Three Act Tasks created by my students at the University of Houston. on this YouTube channel! You’re welcome!

Here are four of my favorite Three Act Tasks for exploring capacity with nonstandard units—all created by my elementary math methods students.

1. Filling Up with Cookies Three Act Task

Main Question: How many cookies does it take to fill the center of the plate?

2. One Fish! Two Fish! Oh Fishy! Three Act Task

Main Question: How many goldfish fit in the bowl?

3. Jar-Stimation Three Act Task

Main Question: How many marshmallows fit in the jar?

4. Dum Dum Drop Three Act Task

Main Question: How many lollipops fit in the piñata?

Fully exploring nonstandard units and connecting counting to measurement builds a strong foundation for the more abstract measurement involving standard units kids will encounter starting in about grade 3.

Give these activities a try! Let me know how they go!

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