• Anita Demitroff

Is this a metre? Allowing learners to get a sense of proportion and scale (5 tips)

It’s not just a question of age. Ask Primary or Secondary students to estimate how long something is, like a table in the room, for instance, and they often can’tgive us an answer. Digital simulations have become more widespread at school, so learners watch an experiment or maths activity being carried out.

More than often, children don't get their hands on the equipment and measuring devices: a trend aggravated by the pandemic. At home, they take part less and less in domestic chores. Teachers in rural areas around Galicia report that their pupils don’t even step out onto their own farms to see how their grandparents tend to the garden or look after livestock.


Nevertheless, children's natural instincts spur them on when they are given an opportunity to do something hands-on, like measuring. Moreover, a teacher will always be surprised by how some have an innate sense of proportion and quantity; they are natural mathematicians, even in early Primary.


How can we as families and educators in the broader sense foster measuring skills?


Here are five tips for home and classroom.


1. With younger children, start with non-standard measurements. How deep is the puddle? To find out, check how high the water comes up on your Wellington boots. This activity was proposed in It’s Not Fair or Is it?, the Association of Science Education’s guide to building skills. Measure a puddle over two or three days to see how the water eventually evaporates.


2. Older school teachers are spot on when it comes to teaching children how to use simple measuring devices. I can still remember how Miss Brown in Richland School (in rural New Jersey, USA) taught us about using a ruler. In her honour, I've written a ruler ditty:


A ruler, ruler, is your friend.

Start from zero and not the end.


We start measuring from the zero marked on our ruler; children often dontt know this nowadays.

3. Practise estimating and measuring from early Primary onwards. Involve children in household tasks, like measuring to see if a piece of furniture fits into a given space or how much flour is needed for a recipe. With cooking, compare measuring jugs that measure volume with scales that measure mass.


At school, how can we measure the length of the classroom floor more efficiently by using the dimensions of a single tile? Yes, even in later Primary, some pupils will try measuring the entire length of the room rather than finding a shortcut.

4. Analogy provides a sense of relative scale. Here are eight spherical objects: a peppercorn, a marble, two cherry tomatoes, a small lemon, a big apple, a grapefruit and a football. What do they represent? If they are the planets in our Solar System, which one is which?


The relative distance of planets from the Sun is often represented with toilet paper sheets, so we use two sheets for Mercury, but go right down the corridor with loo roll to show how far away Neptune is. A greener alternative is to use recycled yoghurt cartons to mark the relative distances.


5. Make comparisons. Science museums and toy shops often have charts with the height of different living things or measurements from the Guinness Book of World Records. However, we can make our own charts with data from the Internet. Imagine: one child is as tall as the highest stack of doughnuts; another can stand alongside the longest bull horns.


Distances also become more imaginable if we think in terms of strides or travel time.Active Learning in the Mathematics Classroom, Grades 5-8 (H. Martin) gets students to measure their average stride and then calculate how many strides it would take to travel around the 40,000 kms of the Equator. Imagine falling into a big hole in the Earth so that we ended up on the other side of the planet. How long would it take? The answer is surprising!


Getting a sense of proportion and scale takes time. If we continue the good work done in Early Years right through Primary, we can make sure our children can “feel” the measurements dealt with in Secondary. And we all develop a deeper understanding of the world around us.


What can we measure today? What equipment can we use to do the task? Or will we simply use our hands?


By Ana Demitroff

Bio: Ana has been in the classroom longer than she cares to admit, but she still gets a kick from the experience and continues to learn from her colleagues and students at the You First Language Centre.