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Teaching Non Standard Measurement Using A Messy Box!

Teaching Non-Standard Measurement

Non standard measurement teaches students how to really measure. Find out about our Secret Weapon and how to teach your young learners how to measure without using rulers, tapes or scales!


Non Standard Measurement

Teaching kids to measure using standard measurement tools teaches kids how to really measure. This method is a must before diving into using regular measuring tools like rulers, tapes or scales.

Unfortunately non standard measurement is often either taught badly, or missed out altogether! Or even worse  many non standard measurement lessons often become lessons in counting rather than measuring.

Continue reading to find out how kids can measure thing without using rulers, tapes or scales. We will also tell you about our secret weapon… The”Messy Box” an essential piece of kit to help you teach measurement.

There’s a handy FREE Measurement Cheat Sheet (at the end of the post). Perfect for your teaching numeracy toolkit!




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Non Standard Measurement Cheat Sheet

‘Real Measurement’ or measuring using standard measurement tools is actually called  ‘Indirect Measurement’ in the Australian Curriculum and involves measuring using familiar metric units & measurement tools including metres, centimetres, kilometres, kg, g litres and ml etc… and can be found in  the Year 3, Year 4, Year 5, Year 6 & Year 7 curriculum.


You may be surprised to know that measurement using know formula  should not be formally taught until Year 6 and 7, however many teachers don’t realise this or understand the measurement process and teach formulae much early than they should.   To help identify which year levels teach what in measurement I created a Measurement Cheat Sheet. It helps educators to make links  between what is to be taught in each Year Level, specific concepts, & the Achievement Standards. There is also a handy clarification of measurement terminology page, to help with a shared understanding of teaching measurement.

Teaching measurement is not straight forward and research has identified complex key ideas & skills that students need to develop to become “good at measurement.”  Teachers find this approach confusing and often don’t know how to teach it. Many over scaffold their students during the measuring process by “telling them” how to measure something as well as telling their students which piece of equipment to measure with, so the students end up following a set of instructions!


WHY is Non Standard Measurement so Important?

So you may be wondering, and so may your parents & your students…Why are students made to measure objects using hand-spans, popsticks, string, anything but a ruler?

Using Non standard measurement (direct measurement) helps students to understand the measuring process. Lessons and activities that incorporate these elements allows the students to focus on  how to measure of find out which is heavier, lighter, longer, shorter etc. without reading scales on measuring tools.  These processes are important foundations to measurement and facilitate students understanding of what measuring is before they go move onto the next step of measuring objects using standard units.

Phases of Non standard Measurement Learning

Research by  First Step identified 3 broad phases for teaching about each of the measurement attributes of length, area, volume, capacity, mass, angle, temperature and time.

Phase 1: Identifying the attribute

The focus is on – Developing the concept of the attribute, distinguish it from other attributes and gaining intuitive understanding of properties.

Activities would include opportunity to:

  • Learn language of measurement
    (how far, how long, tall, short, wide, distance around tree, length…)
  • Compare objects on basis of attribute
    (which snake is longer, who is taller, which house is further away, sort pens by length …)
  • Compare with other attributes
    (this box is longer, but that box is bigger; he is taller, but I am older)
  • Use informal units
    (it is 5 giant steps to the window, this table is 12 books long …)


Phase 2: Learning to measure

Measure how much (quantity), use formal units, estimate measurements.

  • Transition from informal units to formal units
    (make ‘ruler’ for informal unit (e.g. popstick length, discuss value of agreed unit, make own ruler measuring in centimetres …)
  • Make and use simplified ‘instruments’ that highlight key features
    (rulers with only centimetres marked, one-handed clock, mark a jug with ‘cups’…)
  • Measure objects in various ways
    (correct use of ruler, tape measure, trundle wheel …)
  • Acquiring a set of personal benchmarks that can be used for estimating
    (my hand span is about 15 cm; I am about 130cm tall…)

Phase 3: Learning to calculate

Convert from one unit to another, calculate, instead of direct measure.

  • Formulas derived from first principles, rather than only memorised
    (perimeter of rectangle = 2 × length + 2 × width, circumference of circle = 2 Pi symbolr)
  • Conversions between units draws on principles of proportional reasoning
    (sketch dual number line to see 3.2 km = 3200 m etc)

 Non-Standard Measurement Tools

Messy Measurement Box  

To teach non-standard measurement effectively you will need a  ‘Messy’ Measurement Box. This is a box filled with all sorts of non-standard measuring tools.

When measuring, students need to independently select the correct tool for the job, rather than being told to measure the desk using popsticks.  By presenting the students with a ‘messy’ box and asking them to find out how long? or which is the biggest? you are allowing them to demonstrate their depth of understanding about measuring. In our ‘Messy’ box we included a range of items for measuring all attributes, not just length, so the students really did have to decide which measuring tool is right for the job. We used pegs, string, sticky tape, plastic drinking cups, broken rulers, pop sticks, blu tac, cotton buds, marbles…Importantly the box of equipment is to be MESSY and the items are not to be sorted or organised in any way. If you do this you are actually scaffolding the student and prompting them to select a repeating uniform unit, rather than them learning the importance of this themselves.  This tool demonstrates how important it is for your students to have as much hands-on experience with the processes of measuring. Try this Measurement Task for early years students.

Non standard Measurement task

By using the ‘messy’ box to measure objects kids are learning that measurement is not  just  a numerical final measurement. They learn that measurement is also about:

  • selecting the correct tool for the job
  • selecting a uniform repeating unit
  • using a unit in  the same way without gaps or overlaps to find out how big something is.

The process of non-standard measurement highlights some big ideas of measurement & students need to master the full range  of skills to become competent before they start using scaled measuring tools.

Measurement Task

You may think that children instinctively know what to measure length, width, mass etc with but they don’t … This was proved recently when I asked the Year 4’s to measure their desks. They were asked to find out how big their desk was and who had the biggest desk? Simple enough right?


Each group had a MESSY MEASUREMENT BOX on their tables containing a range of items, string, popsticks, broken rulers, plastic cups, blutac, match sticks, sticky tape, elastic bands, clothes pegs, crayons, pencils, cotton buds…etc. . As we stood and watched the children my colleagues & I could not believe what we were seeing.

The behaviour of the groups clearly identified what we needed to teach:

  • Group 1 – stood staring & disengaged, waiting because they just couldn’t get past the ‘hands on’ approach & didn’t understand the concept of measuring
  • Group 2 – pleaded  for a ruler,
  • Group 3 – decided to use bluetac & stretched it across the table. When it snapped they put the bit in their hands on the edge of the table and ignored the fact that they didn’t have enough
  • Group 4 – used a mixture of items, a crayon, a popstick & an elastic band, and lined them end to end across the table in a very slanted line, and when they got to the end & didn’t have a small item just ignored the gap.
  • Group 5 – used the same item repeatedly, but who measured the space of their finger every time they moved their tool
  • Group 6 – The group who used a MARBLE!!!!!!!!

So you can now see the importance of letting students select their own tools to measure from a ‘Messy’ box. If we had just given them rulers or pop sticks we would not have identified their areas of need.  Try this one in your class and let us know what happens!

Planning Your Activity

A  great resource we used to plan our non standard measurement activity is the First Steps Measurement Books. If you don’t have access to them they are available for FREE online here.   These are the big ideas of measurement to help you plan a comprehensive non standard measurement unit.

Understand Units

  • Key Understanding 3 – To measure something means how much of a particular attribute it has.
  • Key Understanding 4 – The instrument we choose to represent the unit should relate well to what we are measuring & should be easily repeated
  • Key Understanding 6 – Our choice of attribute & unit depends upon what we are trying to measure & why

 Direct Measure

  • Key Understanding 3 -To measure consistently we need to use our instrument in a way that is a good match to the object being measured


And Finally…

Measurement is tricky even for adults. How many times have you misjudged something and when you have got it hoe or had it delivered it doesn’t fit!!! So give your students the time they need to explore measurement and the art of measuring!

Here is a funny quick clip of why it’s important to get measurement right in the early years.  Take a look at this Foxtel ad about a dad, son & a large fridge… “Should Have Measured it!”




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Teaching Non-Standard measurement teaches students how to really measure but without using rules, tapes or scales. But it often becomes a counting lesson rather than a lesson about how to measure.  It is an important foundation and  precursor to 'REAL MEASUREMENT'. Learn about our secret weapon...
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