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Teaching Metric to Very Young Children

by Valerie Antoine, USMA Executive Director

Although youngsters in kindergarten and first and second grade are only beginning to recognize numbers, letters, and shapes, these lessons may be augmented by bringing in a few everyday metric system units. Following are some suggestions for making a sort of game out of learning both numbers and SI units.


Obtain a wide, stiff piece of white paper that is about 120 to 150 centimeters long (depending upon the estimated top heights of the students). The width of the paper is necessary because several students may have the same heights and you'll need room to record this on the paper. Place marks along one side of that paper to indicate measurements in centimeters, writing the number of the centimeter beside each mark. [You might also check your metric-supplies store for possible availability of a metric height chart set up in centimeters.]

NOTE: It might be wise to place an additional strip of paper over the chart to the right of your centimeter markings. When you check height periodically, some of the children might show growth. You can remove that extra strip of paper and affix another one to add the heights and names of all the children if some are a bit taller (during the successive periodic measurements).

Affix this marked paper to the wall and have each child stand close to it. Place a horizontal mark at the child's height, to the right of the centimeter marking, and write the child's name above that mark. Then show the child the number on the centimeter scale, state the child's height in the number of centimeters, and have the child repeat the number of his or her height.

A game may be made (after a few students' heights have been measured) of having the students guess the number of centimeters his/her height will be, before the student stands beside the chart to find the actual height.

This chart may be used every few weeks to check student growth and reinforce each one's knowledge of his/her height in centimeters. It also could be used to measure other items such as pencils, note paper, etc., that the students use.

In addition, you could provide an abstract concept of what a centimeter is by having each student check which part of their hand measures about a centimeter (using the height chart). Also provide them with a paper that identifies what they have measured, then ask them to add the correct number to statements such as the following. When they are measuring, show them that they will use the number at the mark on the height chart that is closest to the item being measured. Also show them the symbol for the metric unit.

I am about ____________ centimeters tall.

I am about ____________ cm tall.

My pencil is about _____________ centimeters long.

My pencil is about _____________ cm long.


Another [a bit more advanced] way to teach metric would be to supply lengths of string to the students and have them measure the width of their desks or other objects around the schoolroom Tell them to hold their finger at that place on the string, and use the height chart to determine how many centimeters long the item is. Then have them write the number. If you want to teach millimeters, you could use a meter stick that shows millimeters. Have them measure objects with the string and determine the millimeter length of the object by holding it against the meter stick and determining the number of millimeters. Show them a millimeter's size is about the thickness of a dime, and show 5 dimes to indicate 5 mm and 10 dimes to show 10 mm.


If you can obtain a metric scale, you can weigh each child, show them the number in kilograms that they weigh, and have them write the number in the same way the height measurement is written.


Another idea would be to obtain a large Celsius thermometer and point out the temperature to them, then give them a page on which you have typed:

Today's temperature is ____________degrees Celsius

to fill in the numbers.

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Updated: 2004-10-29