Standard Measurement with Play Dough

This hands-on, literature-based math activity will help your younger students concretely understand the concept of standard measurement.

Target Age Range: K-2

Skills Covered: non-standard measurement, standard measurement, making comparisons, fine motor skills, reading

Understanding measurement doesn’t have to be hard for little ones. In fact, teaching it early with concrete materials builds an in-depth understanding that will last a lifetime!

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When teaching measurement to young children, always begin measuring things with “non-standard” tools. That means you will supply crackers, paper clips, M&M’s, counting bears, or whatever else floats your fancy for measuring things. Give your child LOTS of experience measuring with non-standard measuring tools.

Comparing Measurements with Non-Standard Measuring Tools

In the activity pictured above, I wanted to help my kindergartener understand that not all measurements are equal. When mom says she needs a length of playdough that is 3 bears long, does she mean a length of 3 BIG bears or 3 SMALL bears?  Is there a difference??

I asked Eli to roll out two snakes with playdough. He placed 3 big bears next to one of the snakes and cut the playdough to show the length. He placed 3 small bears next to the other snake and again cut the playdough to show the length. It was very clear to him that there is a difference in the two measurements. I asked probing questions for him to consider. “Why is one snake bigger than the other?” “Do you think the same thing would happen if I measure something with my big feet and you measure it with your little feet?”

Comparing Non-Standard Measurements with a Literature Connection

We decided to see how far I could walk taking five steps (toe to heel) vs. how far he could walk taking five steps. We measured things like tables and bookshelves in my feet vs. his feet. Then we sat down to read one of my favorite math books ever, How Big Is a Foot?

In this book, the author helps a child understand the need for “standard” measurements – like inches, feet, and yards. It’s a great book to use when your child is ready to transition from measuring with non-standard tools to standard tools!

Concrete Practice with Standard Measuring Tools

After reading the book, but before jumping right into measuring in abstract terms like inches and feet, I wanted Eli to have a solid understanding of standard measurements always being the same.

I pulled out our unifix cubes and we compared them to see that each one was exactly the same size. I asked, “If mom makes a playdough snake 7 cubes long and you make a playdough snake 7 cubes long, do you think our snakes will be the same size?” “Why?” “Let’s try!”

We made several snakes in this manner to help him understand that our snakes should always be the same as long as we’re using the same-sized measuring tool.

Introducing “Real” Measurements

I pulled out two rulers and asked Eli to explore them. He noticed numbers, lines, and that the numbers on one ruler are in the same place as the numbers on the other ruler. We talked about how rulers are everybody’s standard measurement. I could have a ruler at grandma and grandpa’s house, cut a playdough snake 8 inches, and bring it home – and it would be the same length as a snake he cut while I was away using his own ruler.

We practiced making snakes using different rulers and – surprise – they always came out the same length!

Enjoy teaching your little one about measurement in a fun, real, and super-meaningful way!

Great Measurement Picture Books!

Measuring Penny (Rise and Shine)How Big Is a Foot? (Rise and Shine)How Long or How Wide?: A Measuring Guide (Math Is Categorical)How Tall, How Short, How Far Away?On the Scale, a Weighty Tale (Math Is Categorical)Millions to MeasureIs a Blue Whale the Biggest Thing There Is? (Robert E. Wells Science Series)The Best Bug Parade (MathStart 1)Super Sand Castle Saturday (MathStart 2)Mighty Maddie (MathStart 1)Room for Ripley (MathStart 3)Pastry School in Paris: An Adventure in Capacity (Matt and Bibi Math Adventures)Hershey's Milk Chocolate Weights And Measures BookMe and the Measure of ThingsSam's Sneaker Squares (Math Matters ®)Keep Your Distance! (Math Matters ®)The Dragon's Scales (Step-Into-Reading, Step 3)Jim and the BeanstalkInch by Inch


Awesome Living Math Resources


  1. It is very creative way to teach the young about measurement. Elly must be very busy at that time.

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