Learning to Tell Time

By Dr. Rick Bavaria

Family Fun

Learning to tell time is one of the major skills of childhood. I get a kick out of watching kids as they eventually get it. As they figure out what those moving hands are all about. How the concept of time begins to take shape in their brains. As they start to recognize how long different time segments “feel.”

Learning to tell time makes them feel “grown up” when they finally master it.

My primary school teacher friends have shared with me some creative and effective ways to help children learn to tell time and, as a special bonus, improve their new math skills. Here’s what they tell me.

  • Use a large clock with easily movable hands. Hands-on learning works best. Teachers use colorful, plastic, sturdy, and easily maneuvered clocks.
  • Show that the short hand is the hour hand. It’s shorter because it moves slower.
  • Show that the long hand is the minute hand. The minute hand goes faster than the hour hand because a minute is faster than an hour. When they’re ready to learn about the second hand, show that it’s the fastest one.
  • Make a clock out of a paper plate. Fold it in half and then in half again. Use the four creases to show where the twelve, three, six, and nine go. Then fill in the other hours. Count to twelve with them. Use colorful construction paper for the hands. Color and decorate. Have fun.
  • Count the minutes, hours. “Let’s count twenty minutes and point how the minute hand goes.” “Let’s count three hours and point how the hour hand goes.” Quiz each other. “Move the hands to twenty minutes to three.” “The minute hand is on the ten, the hour hand is on the eleven. What time is it?” When you talk about time, let them experience it. “We can play for five more minutes . . . four more minutes . . . three more minutes . . .”
  • Kids learn to count to sixty. Count with them. Let them show off. All the way to sixty!
  • They learn to count by five. Counting each number on the clock shows five minutes. Sing the five-times-table together.
  • They learn fractions. Eventually they’ll be able to understand easy fractions. “It’s quarter to five.” “It’s half past seven.”
  • They learn an awareness of time. “What can we do in one minute? In five minutes? In a quarter of an hour?” Make a chart of their important times: play time, snack time, learning time, Mommy-comes-home-from-work-time, bedtime.
  • They learn the concepts of clockwise and counterclockwise. Give them an awareness of the direction of the clock’s hands. It’s smart to start with analog clocks; eventually you can introduce them to digital time, which may be easier for adults but doesn’t have the easy-learning visual advantages for kids.

Keep it all casual. Play time-telling games. Talk about time in other contexts than just teaching them about telling time. “We have to pick up Daddy in four minutes. Make sure you’re ready, please.”