How to Understand the Metric System for Kids

Written by mary johnson-gerard, ph.d.
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How to Understand the Metric System for Kids
Teaching the metric system doesn't have to be a daunting task. (folding meter image by Miroslav Beneda from

U.S. children need to learn the basics of the metric system to achieve a well-rounded mathematics education. Teaching the metric system to kids requires a few techniques that may go against your teaching instincts. To make the metric system a more realistic idea to children, you can take a lot of the actual calculations out of it. Learning metric conversions will be skill taught to older students at the secondary level. Teaching hands-on measuring with the metric system will help younger children develop an understanding for it. These activities are designed for teaching a metric math unit to students grades five to eight.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Meter stick
  • Bags of rice and beans
  • Measuring cup with metric units
  • Plastic cup
  • 2 digital thermometers set to measure in Celsius
  • Metric weighing scale
  • Masking tape
  • Paper
  • Pencil

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  1. 1

    Measure a full meter off the ground on a wall and tape the meter stick, so the bottom is at the top measurement of the first meter. This will help students measure their heights without having to move the meter stick up and down. They can add the number of centimetres their heights are to the 100 centimetres already measured out for them.

  2. 2

    Place a scale that measures in kilograms near the meter stick, so the students can weigh themselves.

  3. 3

    Give the students paper and pencil and have them make a height and weight chart they can update daily. Have them record their heights and weights each day in metric units. Doing this will teach students the vocabulary used in the metric system. The repetition of doing it each day for a number of days will help the information stick.

  4. 4

    Give them some height and weight comparisons to help illustrate the concept of height and weight in the metric system. According to the National Institute of Technology website, some comparisons are diving off a 10-meter tall high diving board is the same as jumping off of the third floor of a building and a balance beam is only as wide as a paperback book, 10 centimetres.

  1. 1

    Pour varying amounts of rice and beans into the plastic cups. Have the kids pour the rice and beans from the cups into a measuring cup and measure how much is in each cup in metric millilitres. This will familiarise them with how to read the measuring cup.

  2. 2

    Give the kids paper and pencil to make an estimation chart on the next day of the unit. On the left side, they write their guesses for how much is in each cup, and on the right, they put how much is in each cup after they measure.

  3. 3

    Allow the children to pair up and give each pair a bag of rice and beans and plastic cups. Have them fill four or five cups for each other to estimate and measure.

  1. 1

    Set up one of the digital thermometers outside where the students can read it easily. Attaching it to a window on the outside is one way to do this.

  2. 2

    Set the other thermometer up in the classroom where students can access it easily. Choose one student each day to be in charge of recording the temperature on the board.

  3. 3

    Ask the student to write the date on the board and record both the outdoor and indoor temperatures. Have the student present the temperatures each day to the rest of the class. Discuss what the temperatures mean if zero degrees Celsius is freezing.

  4. 4

    Talk about what kinds of temperatures they would expect to see in each season. website offers a rhyme that helps children remember how Celsius temperature feels:

    "Thirty's warm,

    Twenty's nice,

    Ten's cold,

    Zero's ice."

Tips and warnings

  • If you are teaching the metric system to help children convert completely to the metric system of measurement, do not use the inch-pound system at all. Teach only metric units.
  • If you are teaching a metric unit, do not reference inch-pound measurements to avoid confusion and the desire to calculate conversions. Conversions are unnecessary if you are only teaching the process of metric measurement.

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