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Get messy with measuring

Splashing in the bath and digging in the sandpit are play activities almost all young children adore! But did you realise that these early adventures are great for showing your child how the units of measure they meet in primary school are relevant in real life?

Read on to find out exactly what your child will learn at school about mass (a.k.a. weight in everyday language), volume, and capacity, and discover our top tips and activities to support their learning at home.

What do children learn at school?

In Reception, children are expected to be able to use everyday language to talk about weight and capacity to compare quantities and help them solve problems.

During Key Stage 1 (Years 1 and 2), children learn how to compare, order, and measure mass and volume/capacity using kilograms/grams and litres/millilitres.

In Key Stage 2 (Years 3 to 6), children progress to using measuring instruments accurately, converting between units of measure including metric and imperial units (e.g. kilograms to pounds, or litres to pints), as well as scaling quantities up and down.

Activities to try at home

Here are some ideas for fun, practical activities to harness your child’s natural love of mess-making while building their confidence with mass, volume and capacity.

1. Water, water everywhere

Grab some containers of different sizes (egg cups, beakers, plastic storage boxes, pots and pans), provide some water (in the sink, the bath, or a bucket outside), and let children compare capacities by filling and pouring from one to another. Encourage them to use language such as full, empty, contains more/less than. Can your child compare the containers and see which ones have less and which ones have more?

Ensure they check the capacities by pouring and don’t think that taller, thinner containers always hold more than shorter, wider ones. Older children can start to compare more accurately by using measuring jugs, and by drawing their own scales on empty plastic bottles in non-standard units (e.g. egg cups) or standard units (e.g. 100 ml).

Top tip: We measure the volume of liquids, but the capacity of containers.

2. On balance

Traditional balance-style scales are great for comparing the mass of objects, as children see the pans move up and down to show which is heavier/lighter. You can use digital scales too; just remember to note down the reading each time. Children love to weigh stones, sticks and other yucky outdoor discoveries (anyone know how much a snail weighs?!), but nice, clean toys work well too!

You can help develop logical thinking by asking questions. For example: Is the biggest always heaviest? If Dolly is heavier than the truck, and the truck is heavier than the ball, then is Dolly heavier or lighter than the ball? Weighing two models made from the same amount of dough is also a brilliant way to show that the total mass stays the same even when moulded into different shapes or broken into pieces.

3. Ready, set, bake!

Cooking is a wonderful way to get children weighing and measuring practically and reading scales carefully. Many baking recipes use ‘cups’, which is especially good for younger children. (‘Cups’ are all about proportions so you don’t need special ones – just use the same measuring container each time!)

Older children can experience metric/imperial measures in recipe books and practise scaling by multiplying or dividing to create, e.g. double or half the amount in the recipe. Another fun activity is making ‘mocktails’ with different-coloured squashes or juice – challenge your child to create a recipe that actually tastes good. What volumes of each liquid do they need?

4. Cupboard clear out

Need to sort out your cupboards? Get the kids to help! Ask your child to read the labels and sort your items based on their mass or volume. Which units do the items use? Can they display all the different masses and volumes in order?

Older children can compare items labelled in different units by converting litres to millilitres, or pounds to kilograms, and so on. Handling different packages is also a great way to develop children’s sense of what different masses feel like, e.g. a bag of crisps is about 30g, and a tin of baked beans is about 500g (including the tin).

Top tip: The ‘e’ symbol on food packages means the approximate weight or volume contained in the package.

I hope these ideas have given you some inspiration for messy learning around the house with your child. Have fun!

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