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Shape, space and measure

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By Nicki Allman

Use picture books to get the most out of shape, space and measure in your setting.

Shape, space and measure

Picture books are a great source of help in teaching mathematical concepts in Early Years settings. They provide a visual aid that can assist with various different areas of maths. They are a particularly useful device for teaching trickier concepts, such as arrays. After all who doesn’t like to share in a story?

Using picture books to engage with maths provides a fantastic link between Literacy, Communication and Language and Mathematics. Most importantly, they provide a much less stressful way of approaching Mathematics for those who struggle, enabling them to engage without becoming immediately discouraged. It also enables the development of talk and problem solving in a fun way. After all, the job of the practitioner is to enable a sense of enjoyment in learning as well as to promote confidence in different areas. We must get rid of the negative attitudes surrounding Mathematics and promote a sense of ‘having a go’ without fear of failure. If this process of positivity in Mathematics is promoted from the earliest years then it becomes easier to manage over the whole of a child’s school life. Early Years is crucial in setting the whole tone of positivity. For more information about using picture books, please see our Picture Book Maths article, which explains how picture books can be used to enhance Early Years development.

Teaching the concept of shape, space and measure

Mathematics: Shape, space and measure

Early Learning Goal: Children use everyday language to talk about size, weight, capacity, position, distance, time and money to compare quantities and objects and to solve problems. They recognise, create and describe patterns. They explore characteristics of everyday objects and shapes and use mathematical language to describe them.

This broad area of Mathematics takes into account shape, size, angles, area, perimeter, volume, position and properties of things within space (the area which something takes up – for example a small ball takes up a small space but the big ball takes up a bigger space than the small ball).

Measure can be categorized as having a length, width or size. Units of measure include centimetres, millimetres, etc…

Shape falls into distinct areas:
  • Plane geometry looks at points, lines and shapes (including polygons). Points do not have dimensions but are simply a position. Lines are one dimensional and shapes are two dimensional.
  • Solid geometry is about three dimensional objects. These can be held in the hand and manipulated.

Teaching the concept of statistics (data handling)

Shape, space and measure goes hand in hand with data handling. Counting, grouping and sorting skills are at the heart of both topics.

This area of mathematics takes into account a broad area. It looks at how to collect information (data) as well as how to show and present it, summarise it, draw conclusions and analyse what has been found. It can be split into different areas:
  • Qualitative data which describes something. E.g. This shape has straight edges.
  • Quantitative data which describes information (data) using a numerical form. It suggests how much/many in a group. This can be further separated into discrete data which has particular values and can be counted, e.g. 12 people like dogs, and continuous data which can take any values within a particular range that can be measured, e.g. temperatures over a given week.

Even with very young children, the technical language within mathematics should be used and explained. The earlier and more often a child hears this type of language, the more they will be able to understand and use it later on in life. For instance, shape vocabulary uses language such as lines, points, edges, vertices and faces. Using these terms now ensures that children will become familiar with the correct terminology from an early age and helps to prevent any misconceptions from creeping in.

Try your hand at teaching shape, space and measure with these three picture books. Read the books together and then attempt some of the activities.

Titch by Pat Hutchins

Titch by Pat Hutchins is a good book to introduce space, size and measure. Titch is much smaller than his older sister and older brother. Titch wants the ‘bigger’ things that they have, but one day he does discover that something can grow very big.


  • Compare and order sizes of different objects. Put the class or group in order of size from tallest to smallest. Use language such as big/small, longest/shortest etc… It is vital to use language for comparison, for instance, Child A is bigger than Child B, but Child C is bigger than both of them. Child A takes up more space than Child B.
  • Measure feet and hands and order the group or class according to feet and hand sizes. Does the biggest child have the biggest feet or biggest hand? You could do feet and hand printing and make a display of feet and hands. Can the feet and hands be linked to pictures of the children?
  • Use a height chart to measure the heights of the children. This could be recorded over the time the children are in the setting to do a comparison. What do they notice about their growth?
  • Look at plants and seeds and how they grow. This is a good summer activity – try growing sunflowers or other such plants. Which sunflower can grow the biggest? Will the biggest child in the setting have the biggest sunflower? This is a good link to ‘Understanding the World’ as it encourages observations of plants and their growth. Another good link could be to look at the life cycle of an animal or plant. A clear container can be used so the children can plant a seed and watch how it grows.
  • Encourage the children to draw and write simple sentences to show their observations.

Life cycles

  • A link to ‘Expressive Arts’ could be made using different tools to create things and explore the usage of such tools. (With appropriate risk assessments for using the equipment). At this point a role play area could be set up with a ‘play’ workbench. The children, with an adult, could use tools such as saws to saw different lengths of wood and compare them. Ask the children to complete tasks such as: Can you find something the same size as this stick? Can you find something smaller or bigger?
  • Explain that you are going to make a box, but to do so you will need to measure the sides and lengths carefully. Encourage the use of tape measures. This is a good link to counting on a number line in order. Stress the importance of starting from 0 when measuring and focus on the understanding of 0 in counting.
  • The book could also be used as a comparison in measuring for mass. The children can be given a problem-solving task to make a packed lunch suitable for the sizes of the three children in the story. Use vocabulary such as lightest/heaviest. Compare different items of food according to their sizes and weights. The introduction of balancing scales to compare would be an added advantage here but also scaled scales to measure the actual weights of each different object. The added fun is in eating the packed lunches at the end of the activity!

The Bad-Tempered Ladybird by Eric Carle

The Bad-Tempered Ladybird by Eric Carle is a super way to introduce the concept of size and measure by using a very bad tempered ladybird who challenges everyone she meets for a fight. It doesn’t matter how much bigger they are until she meets somebody very big indeed. Even though this doesn’t have a direct mathematical focus, it does provide a rich scope to explore mathematical concepts in a fun way.

The Bad-Tempered Ladybird

  • Order and compare the sizes of the animals that the bad-tempered ladybird comes across on his travels. Set up a role play area with masks for the animals and the bad-tempered ladybird. The children must put the animals in order. The repetitive nature of this story means that the children can follow the pattern in the book to help them order according to size.
  • Using playdough, can the children make something that is bigger or smaller than a toy animal from the story? Can they make something fatter or thinner than a given object?
  • Ask questions such as, who can make the fattest worm? Who can make the smallest ball? Who has made a ball smaller than child A or the teacher?
  • Introduce the concept, is it possible to measure all the animals in the story? How could this be done? What would be needed? Would a ruler be a good piece of equipment to measure the whale? This could be linked to non-standard and standard measures. Can the children measure things in the setting using their hands or feet? How easy would this be?

Mouse Shapes by Ellen Stoll Walsh

Mouse Shapes by Ellen Stoll Walshis has a direct focus on exploring shapes. It follows three mice as they explore different shapes and what they can do with them.. You can see a video of the book being read here.

(One mathematical misconception that can be tricky to undo is that of using the plastic 2D shapes that are commonly found in many classrooms. These are actually 3D shapes as they have a depth to them. A question commonly asked is whether these should still be used to teach 2D shapes, however, for young children being able to hold these and manipulate them can help with looking at them from different perspectives.)

Mouse Shapes
  • Explore the shapes in the story. make sure you use the mathematical name for a diamond (a rhombus). Look at 2D shapes from the book and explore their properties. It is important to allow the children to play with these shapes. Allowing them to see that a triangle is still a triangle if it is shown from different perspectives, and the same with a square, will help them to master the concept.
  • Show a large square and a large rectangle. Can the children share what is the same and different about these shapes? try to stress the concept that a square is also a rectangle on the basis that opposite sides of a rectangle are the same length. But be aware that even though a square is a special kind of rectangle, not all rectangles can be classed as squares. This could be a concept to explore with the older children in the setting or even those who have a deeper understanding with shapes.
  • Hide the shapes in a feely bag. A child puts their hand in the bag and describes what they can feel. This is a good activity to help children visualise shapes as they have to use their imaginations to think about what they might be feeling.
  • It is also crucial to show children how 2D shapes are drawn on paper – they have no depth to them. Another way to identify this is by using the interactive whiteboard to organise shapes according to their properties. It is essential to use technical vocabulary to help the children describe them. For instance, using words like curved, straight, 2D, 3D, faces, edges, vertices, points, lines, etc… enables the children to develop a rich vocabulary in mathematical areas.
  • Can the children make shape pictures using 2D shape cut outs ? Provide images from the book to give a visual idea but also encourage the children to make their own creations. This would be an ideal opportunity to explore the interests of the children so they can make something they like.

You might also find inspiration with these shape-themed videos. Each one tells a moral tale using a cartoon made entirely from 2D shapes. Here’s an example:

  • Exploring how 2D and 3D shapes can be sorted using a range of ways enables children to become more familiar with the properties as well as the associated vocabulary.
  • Explore 3D shapes and compare the difference between 2D and 3D shapes. Use correct mathematical language to describe the properties.
  • Provide lots of different 3D shapes and encourage the children to make something using these. Could the children create a house for the mice to hide from the cat in? Encourage the use of mathematical vocabulary.
  • This is also a good book to use to compare size using smallest/biggest – try comparing the sizes of the mice to the cat, or the 2D mice to real mice.

By using picture books in this way, a myriad of ideas linked to the Early Learning Goals can be drawn out and developed. Developing deep understanding is the key to confidence in mathematics as well as showing how areas are linked. Using picture books is a clear way to help the development in a fun, engaging and relaxing way. It is also important that the use of picture books in this crucial curriculum area is not stopped at the end of the Early Years phase but continued into the Primary years.