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Understanding a Billion

Updated on January 30, 2015

How Much is a Billion?

Everyone is talking about spending billions of dollars to save the economy but how much is a billion?

We all know how to count to 100. We count by 10's, 5's and 2's but when the numbers get higher it becomes more and more difficult to comprehend just how much that number means.

Here you will find books, games, activities and ideas for exploring large numbers. Hundreds, thousands, millions and even a billion. The numbers keep adding up. How much is a billion?

Photo Credit: $20 Dollars in Plant pot by Images_of_Money

Used under creative commons.

One Grain Of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale - A billion Grains of Rice

A Handful of Rice
A Handful of Rice | Source

Gluing Rice to the Calendar

After reading the story, One Grain of Rice, take out a large page from a calendar. Tell the children that together you are going to glue grains of rice onto the days of the calendar to represent the rice that Rami received from the Raja.

At first it seems like an easy job but soon the numbers get just too high to count. This is a project that will never be completed but this realization is what it is all about.

Measuring a Billion Grains of Rice

How much rice is that?
How much rice is that? | Source

A Billion Questions - Contemplating a Billion

Close-Up of a Dusty and Bright Galaxy Located Billions of Light years Away in Infrared Light
Close-Up of a Dusty and Bright Galaxy Located Billions of Light years Away in Infrared Light | Source

Measuring a Billion Grains of Rice with Cups and Spoons

Now it's time to start talking about estimating. Somewhere between the 7th and the 10th days it will become too tedious to count individual grains. This is why people estimate or use measuring devices to determine amounts.

Count how many grains of rice fit in a teaspoon. How many teaspoons fit in a tablespoon? How many in a cup?

Going through the exercise of actually counting the rice to discover that you can measure the number of rice fairly accurately by spoonful or cupful is an important life skill and one that won't be forgotten when children are given the time to do the actual counting and measuring.

A Galaxy Billions of Light Years Away

This is a close-Up of a dusty and bright galaxy located billions of light-years away in infrared light. What is a light-year and how can we understand the distances involved in billions of light years?

When you talk about light taking billions of light years to reach us can you see why scientists say that we are looking at the past when we look at stars? The light that reaches us today left that star billions of light years ago.

The National Debt Clock

The Debt Clock and Large Numbers

The National Debt Clock just had to add another digit in the 10 trillions place in order to record the amount of debt the US Government owes in comparison to the amount of assets that we have. They did this by replacing the dollar sign.

There are plans to replace the sign in order to add more place values.

Is it possible for anyone to understand numbers so high? Who will have to pay this money back?

Here is a lesson plan developed for 9th grade students to help them understand big numbers. Using estimation and understanding of relative sizes it helps students begin to visualize just how large these numbers are.

I'm Changing My Name To Fannie Mae - When they hand seven hundred million grand out....

Congress is handing out seven hundred million grand out. How many billion dollars is that? If the average salary of the parents in your classroom is $50,000 per year and each person paid all of the money they earned for 20 years, how many people would it take to pay that seven hundred million grand?

The MegaPenny Project - Using Pennies to Understand Large Numbers

The MegaPenny Project aims to help people understand these huge numbers by showing on a computer screen drawings of the quantities involved. It may very well be the best way to deal with the largest numbers but as much as possible it is important to experience these numbers with your hands.

Pile up as many pennies as you can. Ask to visit a vault at a bank to see more pennies and see if it is still possible to pick up a bag of pennies. Ask how much it weighs and how many pennies are in the bag.

How Much Is a Million? - Maybe it's easier to understand a million.

Now that we have experimented with gluing a billion grains of rice and thought about various ways of counting to a billion, maybe a million will seem a more reasonable amount to contemplate.

Children are often intrigued by or confused about (sometimes both) very large numbers. Here Schwartz uses concepts that are simple to help readers conceptualize astronomical numbers like a million, billion, and trillion.

Examples: If a million children climbed on each other's shoulders, they would reach higher into the sky than airplanes can fly; if a billion of them made a human tower, it would reach past the moon.

Some of the concepts can best be understood if there is previous knowledge (like the distance to the moon) but this is on the whole a successful effort. Extensive notes in small print seem addressed to adults.

Kellogg's bouncy, vibrant pictures, however, are colorful and funny and indubitably addressed to children.

Millions of Cats

Millions of Cats Bulletin Board

Children can relate easily to this story. From all the kittens available it's so hard to choose.

Start a bulletin board of cats. Children can draw them, cut them out, use stamps and stamp pads. Ask them to post the most beautiful cat. Each cat will be more beautiful than the last.

How many cats do you have? Hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats.

How to draw cats

Drawing Cats

Share with each other how each of you draws cats. Cut out your cats and start putting them up on the bulletin board. Look at pictures of cats in books, online and in art museums. Which one is the most beautiful?

Look for different artistic techniques and styles in the way that cats are drawn. Experiment with various styles and continue to cut out your cats and put them up on the bulletin board.

Now start counting the number of cats that you have drawn. Have you drawn ...hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats...? as mentioned in the story by Wanda Gag?

Maybe you need some help? Now ask the other classes in your school to join you. Ask your parents and the parents of the other children in the school. Would it be possible to draw a million cats? How many cats would each person in your school have to draw to make one million cats? How about a billion cats?

How long does it take you to draw a cat? Take out a stop-watch and find out the fastest or the average time it takes the children in your class to draw cats. How long would it take to draw one million or one billion cats at your average speed?

Measuring Rice

Rice | Source

FreeRice - Donate rice to the United Nations World Food Program.

"What if just knowing what a word meant could help feed hungry people around the world? Well, at FreeRice it does . . . the totals have grown exponentially."

- Washington Post

Let's Chat about a Billion...

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    • Countryluthier profile image

      E L Seaton 

      7 years ago from Virginia

      Awesome lens on a thousand million! Thanks for sharing the rice tale and the outsmarted raja!

    • tandemonimom lm profile image

      tandemonimom lm 

      8 years ago

      Excellent lens on "billions" Evelyn! Blessed and I'm featuring it on my "How Much is a Trillion" page.

    • profilesincolor profile image


      8 years ago

      Wonderful! :-)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      THis is terrific!!!

    • GonnaFly profile image


      8 years ago from Australia

      That rice grain story sounds great. Lots of other great ideas here too for teaching this difficult number to imagine. Blessed and added to my best maths resources lens.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I Like This Squidoo Lens!! Many kids have a hard time grasping One Million, let alone One Billion, this Lens is Very nicely Done!!! Five Very Huge Stars!!!!!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Cherish each penny as if it's the last money in your pocket, then you will learn the meaning of a billion. Too much money is a burden to my present life, I'd rather not to make bundles.

    • evelynsaenz1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Evelyn Saenz 

      9 years ago from Royalton

      @ElizabethJeanAl: But wouldn't you like to try?

    • ElizabethJeanAl profile image


      9 years ago

      I billion pennies I can imagine, a billion

      Great lens

      Thanks for sharing,


    • evelynsaenz1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Evelyn Saenz 

      9 years ago from Royalton

      @anonymous: A billion thanks. Could you please leave the link to your Fan Club?

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I think we are not wired to understand numbers so big. Great try to getting it into our brains. I'm featuring this in my fan-club thank-you lens, so - thanks!

    • evelynsaenz1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Evelyn Saenz 

      10 years ago from Royalton

      [in reply to AndyPo] Who would have guessed that a billion could have different meanings in different countries. Thank you, AndyPo for this intriguing tidbit. I can hardly wait to research this new aspect of a billion.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Excellent explanation. I have no problem handling large numbers (as a physicist) but the word "billion" is a problem: a British "Billion" was 1000,000,000,000 (a million million) when I was a child, then the (probably more sensible) American version replaced it as the official meaning of the word.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Excellent lens Evelyn -- now I can well see a series in the development -- understanding a trillion, etc.! Isn't it something that once upon a time, a million meant a really lot to us, then a billion, now a trillion and onwards and upwards???

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Well explainded lens.

    • Mike ha profile image

      Mike ha 

      10 years ago

      Thanks to you my 8 year old now understands the concept of a billion. Now any help for helping him to count since that is what he wants to do next?

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Billlions in debt is definitely SCARY.

      Well explainded lens.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Another great read to help with visualizing big numbers, "How Big is a Million" Big Is A Million%3F %28with poster%29&sqlwhere=rank

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      It is Nice lens . I really apreciate this topic.

    • SherryHolderHunt profile image


      10 years ago

      Fantastic lens, I played for a while at the FreeRice site. Of course my favorite was the art. 5*s & faved

    • SandyMertens profile image

      Sandy Mertens 

      10 years ago from Frozen Tundra

      Nice lens.

    • funwithtrains lm profile image

      funwithtrains lm 

      10 years ago

      Seems like we're hearing such large numbers these days that they don't even seem real. Great lens - 5 stars and a Digg!

    • jimmielanley profile image

      Jimmie Quick 

      10 years ago from Memphis, TN, USA

      I've never been good at understanding big numbers. Have you seen the Mega Penny project? It's a good visual representation for understanding big numbers.

    • Rich-H profile image


      10 years ago from Surrey, United Kingdom

      Politicians throw numbers like a billion (or billions) around without a thought, but when you sit and think about it, numbers like this are particularly scary when it comes to things like a nation's debt.

      Great resource, Evelyn.


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