Learning to tell the time

Learning to tell the time
Reading Time: 4 minutes

“Time is one of the most difficult concepts for children to tackle in maths and in life,” says Karen McGuigan, founder of The Maths Mum®, an online tutoring resource that helps parents help their children with maths learning. Karen is also the founder of Maths for Life, a programme designed for schools, colleges, and home educators. In this guest blog, Karen explores why teaching time to children is challenging, and offers simple ways to make learning to tell the time easier at home.

Image: Getty Images

Why is learning to tell the time so hard for kids?

Time is abstract:

Time is abstract, you can’t see it. It isn’t just about telling the time. Understanding time is also about the awareness of duration, time passing, and the sequencing of events. It is about the clock and the calendar.

Measuring time has two aspects – position and duration. Position involves sequencing events and identifying particular times. It is the answer to the question ‘When ….?’ And the answer could be ‘Before…,’ or ‘After…,’ or ’6 o’clock,’ or ‘Friday,’ or ‘Next week,’ or ‘1066’.

Duration involves measuring units and calculating the differences between times on a clock or calendar. It is the answer to the question ‘How long…?’ and could be two minutes, two hours, two days, two years, or two hundred million years ago.

Time is subjective:

Apart from being invisible, time is subjectively experienced. A minute in one context can feel much longer than another. Five minutes enjoying a hot shower feels different to five minutes of running; 30 minutes of homework feels different to 30 minutes of watching your favourite TV programme. As a result, this subjectivity makes estimating time difficult. Children grow and develop their sense of time. The first, and probably most significant, measure of time a child recognises is their age – not surprisingly as it comes with the positive association of a birthday.

Time is puzzling:

We don’t make it easy for our children to understand time. As adults we often use the expressions, “Wait a second” or, “Just a minute” or, “Give me five minutes” or, “It will take hours!” so children are exposed to the idea of time and its passage from a young age. But they are not always correct. How many times have you said to a child, “I’ll be there in five minutes” but your telephone call continues for another 20? This impacts on a child’s understanding of what five minutes feels like.

Time is digital and analogue:

Let’s consider analogue and digital time. Analogue is the circular clock face and the ‘quarter past…’, ‘half past…’ and ‘quarter to…’ versions of the time. Digital is the simpler number version ‘9:30’ or ‘nine-thirty’. You could argue that the analogue way of speaking the time is an Imperial unit like feet and inches, and digital is telling the time in the metric way. Children today live in the digital era and many homes no longer have a traditional clock on the wall or mantelpiece.

Telling the time on an analogue clock involves many mathematical concepts and skills, such as knowing the different functions of the hands, reading numerals, understanding a clockwise direction, counting in multiples of five, recognising fractions of a turn, and differentiating between AM and PM. Research has shown that typically developing children do not fully understand telling the time until they are about eight.

Time is based on 60:

That is before we start on calculations with time and we move from calculating in base 10 to base 60 – a relic of the Babylonian sexagesimal system that set 360 degrees in a circle, 60 minutes, and 3,600 seconds in an hour.

The learning of time and all its complexity is a gradual process that takes several years to master. It should be an integral part of daily life… from talking about the days of the week, yesterday, today, and tomorrow to looking at monthly calendars; from relating time to regular activities through the day to calculating how long an activity takes; from looking at timelines in history to planning forward a timetable to achieve. The more we reference time, the more awareness and understanding children will have of it.

And just when you think you’ve got it sussed, your child asks you the question, “Why do the clocks go forward an hour tonight?” Good luck with that explanation! Time – the subject that keeps giving.

A girl sits behind a large analogue clock learning to tell the time

Image: Getty Images

4 ways to make learning to tell the time easier at home:

  • Buy an analogue clock and display somewhere visible so your child gets used to seeing a clock face.
  • Buy or print out a calendar: Stick it up in a visible place and use it to fill in birthdays, count down to events, and observe the days and months passing.
  • Stick to routines: Children rely on routines to frame their days and weeks. While we’re all spending time at home, it’s easy for one day to blur into the next.
  • Use time devices: An hourglass helps children see the passing of time. Choose different durations for different activities such as a two-minute timer for teeth cleaning. (Try Tock the Learning Clock, which is ideal for children ages 3-7.)

About the Author:

Karen McGuigan the Maths Mum

Karen McGuigan is the founder of The Maths Mum®, an online tutoring resource for parents to help them teach their children maths. Karen is also the founder of Maths for Life, a programme designed for schools, colleges, and home educators. A self-confessed maths geek, Karen is enthusiastic about making maths learning simple, approachable, and fun. Karen is mum to three boys, Dexter (10), Lance (8) and Cal (7). “I am 50% maths geek and 50% undercover superhero trying to inspire all children, young adults and parents to love maths.”

Follow Karen on Facebook and Twitter.

Try our time capsule activity and read more on why do the clocks change for ways to help your child with learning about and understanding time.

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