Ideas for Teaching Capacity

in the sandbox image by Renata Osinska from

The capacity of an object is the measure of how much it can hold. Jean Piaget, a founding father of child development, referred to the idea of conservation, which states that a quantity remains the same despite changes in appearance. By learning about capacity through hands-on experiences, children will naturally develop a sense for how much a container can hold despite its size or shape.

Scoops and Containers

vintage measuring cups image by Scott Williams from

A learning centre helps children develop an understanding of the capacity of different containers and that containers of different shapes may hold the same amount. You can set up a centre by using a large plastic bin, dry rice or beans and several measuring cups and food storage containers.

A chart on a bulletin board or wall helps children remember how many scoops fill each container. To make it easier for children to complete the chart, use at least 10 pictures of each cup and one picture of each food storage container, and have tape available to record their results. You can review the chart with the children to see which containers hold more, less or the same amount.

As a follow-up activity, fill a jar with rice or beans. Holding up a cup, ask the children to guess (estimate) how many cups of rice or beans are inside. The children can write their estimates down on a piece of paper with their name. The child who guesses closest to the correct amount wins a small prize.

Capacity Collages

paper #5 image by stassad from

Howard Gardner, a leading authority in education and intelligence, believes art can enhance a child's skill development across subject areas. Collages, using construction paper and glue, demonstrate the concept of capacity. For this activity, you need a 9-by-12-inch and a 9-by-6-inch piece of paper, and approximately 162 1-by-1-inch squares of construction paper to complete two collage posters. Once you show the children how to glue the small squares side by side onto the larger pieces of paper, they can find the capacity of each poster by counting the squares. Advanced learners may realise there's another way to determine the capacity--multiplying the number of squares across the top by the number of squares down the side of each poster.

Grocery Shopping

Container of milk. Plastic milk bottle image by L. Shat from

Exposure to the concept of capacity occurs in real life experiences such as grocery shopping. Empty, clean and dry food and drink containers in gallon, pint, half-gallon and quart sizes can be part of an in-class grocery store, along with a toy cash register (or one made from a shoe box) and grocery bags.

Before the children play in the store, you can hold up several of the containers and discuss their size (capacity) and labelling each with its capacity in permanent marker. A poster hung in the store can also help children understand the concept, when you write capacity terms on a large piece of paper and tape a picture of an item with that capacity next to the word. For example, the word "gallon" goes next to a picture of a gallon of milk.

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