Knee High Man

The Knee High Man

There are many ways this traditional African-American tale can spark discussion among young children who often feel frustrated that they are no more than “knee high” to the adult world.  You will be able to think of many creative ways to work some of these discussions into the measurement activities of this unit.  A version of this story is found in Julius’ Lester/s The Knee High Man and Other Stories.


Once there was a man who wasn’t very big.  He was no more than knee-high to somebody.  That’s all the taller he was.

Now one day the Knee-High Man wasn’t very happy about his size.   He was going along, grumping to himself.  He sure wished he could get to be bigger.  But he couldn’t figure out how to do it.

He looked over in the field and noticed a horse.  “My goodness,” he thought to himself.  “I remember when that horse was just a little bitty new-born colt.  Look at her now.  She’s 16 hands high!

Maybe she can give me some good advice.”

So the Knee High Man went over and said, “Excuse me, Mizz Horse.  I’m tired of being no more than knee-high to somebody.  I’m just wondering how you grew to be so big?  Maybe it would work for me.”

Mizz Horse whinnied and tossed her head thoughtfully.  “Well,” she said, “I’m not quite sure how I did it.  But I do remember, when I was small.  I ate a lot of green grass.  And I ran around the field, and I ran around the field and I ran around the field.  As you see I did grow.”

The Knee-High Man thought a minute.  He had never tasted grass.  But he did want to get big.

So he reached down and pulled up a clump and chewed on it.  It wasn’t great but it wasn’t terrible either.  He pulled up and ate more grass till he thought he must be turning green.

Then he ran around the field, and ran around the field, and ran around the field until he was so tired he couldn’t take another step.

“I must be bigger by now,” he thought.  He went to his measuring tree and measured himself.

Oh NO! all that grass and running hadn’t made him one bit bigger.  Not even one silly centimeter.

The Knee High Man was kind of disgusted.  He stomped around a bit.  “Grass and running might have worked for Mizz Horse,” he complained, “But it sure didn’t work for me!”

Just then he noticed the great big huge Bull that lived in the next field.  “I can remember when that bull was just a little calf,” The Knee High Man thought. “Look at him now!  His chest is so big and broad—everyone says he’s the biggest animal on the farm—and the loudest!”

“He must know something about growing. For sure!”

So the Knee High Man went over and politely asked the bull how he got to be so big.

The bull snorted and thought and then in a great big loud voice answered, “From the time I was very small, I ate a lot of corn.  I didn’t bother cooking it –I just ate.  And then I BELLOWED and I BELLOWED and I BELLOWED.  Here I am –big and strong!”

“Mm-mm!” thought the Knee High Man. “That grass wasn’t great but I can’t say uncooked corn sounds any tastier.”

Still the Knee High Man was determined to grow.  So he ate some corn–uncooked and straight off the cob.  Then he ate some more and some more until he couldn’t manage another single kernel.

Then the Knee High Man took a deep breath and he BELLOWED AND HE BELLOWED AND HE BELLOWED as best he could.   He kept on until he had lost his voice.

“I just must be bigger now,” the Knee High Man thought to himself and he went over to his measuring tree and he measured himself.

But guess what–he wasn’t any bigger at all– Not even a teeny weeny bit.

I don’t have to tell you.  The Knee High Man was really unhappy now.  He was standing around muttering and sort of kicking at trees and doing who knows what else.

Suddenly a big voice from a near-by tree called out

“WHO-O-O-O-0 is making all that noise, bothering me when I’m trying to take a nap?”

The Knee High Man looked up and saw Wise Old Owl.  “I’m sorry to have disturbed you,” the Knee High Man said.  But the truth is I’m a little disgusted.  I’m just tired to death of being no more than knee-high to somebody.

Everyone I ask how to grow bigger tells me something that doesn’t work.”

“Is that so?”  asked the Owl.  He blinked once or twice and asked,

“Mr. Knee High Man, I’m just wondering– You’ve been this size for a long time. Why do you want to be bigger now?”

“Well, said the Knee High Man, “Well…  You know….”   Actually, he had to stop and scratch his head because he hadn’t thought about exactly why; he just knew he wanted to grow.

Suddenly he thought of something.

“I want to be bigger just in case I get into a fight,” the Knee High Man said. “Then I can fight better, you know.”

“No,” said the Wise Old Owl.  “I don’t know that at all.  Seems to me, you never do get into fights much.  Anyway, it would be a whole lot smarter to use your head to settle your fights than to get bigger and just have bigger fights.”

The Knee High Man looked a little surprised.  “You might be right,” he said.  “I usually don’t bother people and they don’t bother me.”

“But,” he added.  “I still want to be bigger.”

“Why?” the Owl asked again.

The Knee High Man looked around, scratched his head and finally said, “If I was bigger, I could see farther.  I’m so small I miss everything if there’s a crowd around.”

“Mr. Knee High Man–you and I both I know that’s not really true,” The Owl answered.  “If you want to see farther, all you have to do is climb up on a fence, or up a tree and you can see as far as you want.”

“Hmm,” the Knee High Man said, “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“That’s right,” the Wise Old Owl said.  “You hadn’t thought of that.  And that’s your whole problem, Mr. Knee High Man.

“You don’t think.  You don’t need your body to grow any bigger at all.  What you need is to grow your brain bigger!”

“Oh, my” said the Knee High Man.

He sat down right then and there and thought.

Then he thought some more about what the Wise Old Owl had just said.        Before you know it, Mr. Knee High Man jumped up and called out, “Hey, Mr Owl, it works! I can feel my brain growing!

I’ll be all right now.”


I’d have to agree with the Knee High Man — if we keep our brains growing we will all be all right!

What do you think?



The Knee High Man

Key Idea: The story The Knee High Man , preschool children will be introduced to measurement , using each child’s knee high man as an arbitrary unit 

  • The Knee High Man  tell or read (see Knee High Man and other Stories, Julius Lester)
  • Adding machine tape
  • Markers, colored pencils, or other drawing material


¨       Read or tell the story of the Knee High Man and discuss it.  You may want to explore with children the difference between growing bigger physically and “letting one’s mind grow.”   You may also want to make time for  the children to dramatize the story.

¨       At some point, ask the children how tall they think the knee high man was? They are likely to reply with remarks about his being “knee high.”  Ask how tall they think that is?

¨       Call on one child to help everyone see how tall the man would be if he was knee high to that child.  Measure the adding machine tape from the child’s knee to the floor and cut it off and have the child show how long it is.  Now call on someone else who is clearly a different size (perhaps even yourself)-measure that person’s knee high man.  Have the two tapes compared and talk about how each person’s knee high man is a different height.

¨       Continue to have each child’s knee high man measured.  While this is going on, children can draw a knee high man on the adding machine tape.

¨       When all the children have their tape length, discus with them how they can compare  the height of their knee high persons; possible ways include

  • Use direct comparison to find someone else in the group whose knee high person is shorter than/taller than/about equal to their own knee high person
  • Break into groups of 4 to 6 and order their tapes from shorter to taller (it is likely that several may have virtually the same size.)
  • Have them estimate and then use direct comparison with their knee high person to measure something in the room that is

-Shorter than

-Taller than

-About the same size

¨       Remind them to use a base line when they hold the tapes up to do the comparing and ordering.

¨       For homework, tell the children to take their knee high men home and find something that measures out to be “greater than” something that is “less than” and something that is “the same as” their knee high person length.

With older children, extend this inquiry using knee high persons to explore measurement, including decisions about what is “good enough” for a particular situation, limitations of arbitrary units of measurement and advantages of standard units and tools of measurement

KNEE HIGH MAN Inquiry Questions

  • Mathematics:
    • What is greater than, less than or equal to your Knee High Person?
    • How many Tom Thumbs in your Knee High Person?
    • What is a knee high person good for measuring? What isn’t it?
  • Science
    • What does it mean to get bigger for living things? For non-living things?
    • Is what’s good for a horse or bull good for a person?
    • Can your brain really grow?
  • Social Emotional
    • Is being bigger really better?
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