How to Teach Kids to Tell Time
As adults, we tell the time instinctively, combining lots of information we’ve learned. But the brain can only handle so many new thoughts at once, so when we’re teaching time to children, it’s important to break the process down.
Here’s how you can do it.
The Idea of Time
First, introduce the idea of time.
Talk with your child about different times of the day, like morning and afternoon. Discuss the different things you do at different times and read story books that mention times of day. Point out what time of day it is when you’re doing things – for example, “It’s evening now, time for bed.”
You can also talk about how long things take, such as, “It will take us three hours to get to Grandma’s” – just don’t expect these times to mean much yet.
Numbers are fundamental to time, so practice counting with your kid. Songs are a great way to lodge numbers in the mind.
Analogue clocks are better for learning time, because they use space to show how times are related. Put analogue clocks up around the house, including in the child’s bedroom. This way, whatever stage you’re up to, they can practice reading time throughout the day.
For a fun craft project, make a toy clock together out of a paper plate, with an hour hand attached using a split pin. They can now move the hand around to practice telling time. Leave the minute hand off for now - that will come later.
Hours and minutes count differently on a clock, using ones and fives. That’s too much for a young child to learn at once, so start with just the hours.
Make a number line showing the numbers one to twelve and an arrow that can point to these numbers. Pens, paper, and sticky notes are good for this. Explain that whichever number the arrow points to is the time now. Then encourage your child to practice marking and reading the time in this way.
Once they’ve got that, talk about what time it will be in an hour or two hours. Show how they can work this out by moving spaces up and down the number line. Practice some more.
Now talk about what happens if moving up the line takes you past twelve. There isn’t a thirteen o’clock, so instead you go back to the beginning. Turn the number line into a circle and practice moving back and forth past the twelve, working out what time is x hours earlier or x hours later.
Parts of Hours
Next come parts of hours.
Again, start with the number line. Teach them that if the hand is halfway between two numbers then it’s half past the first number. Practice this for a while before doing the same thing on a clock face.
Once that’s sunk in, go back to working out earlier and later times – “what’s half an hour earlier?” “what’s an hour and a half later?” and so on.
Then add in the quarter hours. Move the numbers on the number line far apart, add a marker at the half hour, and put an arrow on the spot halfway between the half hour and the hour. Now take the half hour marker away. What’s left is showing a quarter hour.
Practice reading quarter past on the number line and the clock face, using the hour hand.
Separately from this, practice counting in fives and up to sixty. This will prepare the ground for the next stage.
Adding the Minute Hand
Now it’s time to add the minute hand.
Introduce the minute hand as a way to check what you’ve seen on the hour hand. Talk about how the minute hand is different – thinner and longer. Show where it points for o’clock and half past, then help your child practice this using a toy or paper plate clock face. Repeat the process for quarter hours. For all of these, focus on position, not what number the hand is pointing at.
For now, keep the hour and minute hand on separate clock faces, to make it easier to read each of them. Remember, we’re building something complex out of small, simple steps - you’ll combine them properly later.
After adding the minute hand, it’s time to introduce minutes.
Start by creating a sense of how long a minute is. With your kid, run or draw or play for a minute, then tell them when time is up. Repeat for different activities. This will make time and its measurement meaningful.
Make a clock face with the minutes marked on it. Explain how they’re group in fives, and use counting tokens to represent this. Practice reading the minutes off this clock face.
Then go back to a number line and show how the hour and minute numbers go with each other. Each hour counts a number of fives. Practice reading how many minutes an arrow pointing at two, five, ten, or any other number means.
From the number line, go back to clock faces. Practice reading the time using the hour and minute hands together, but with each one on its own clock. Talk about the minutes being how many minutes past the hour it is.
Bringing it All Together
Once they’ve mastered that, move from counting five minute chunks to counting individual minutes on the dial. If your kid has mastered those five minute chunks then they should be able to count on the extra minutes.
Put the clock hands together on a single dial and practice reading that, as well as real clocks around the house.
Finally, teach them how to tell minutes to the hour. If you’re past halfway through the hour, you can say that it’s some minutes to the next hour. Talk about how to work out how many minutes. Link this to the understanding they’ve already built up.
And there you have it. From talking about morning all the way to reading minutes to the hour. Telling time is surprisingly complex, but if you break it down into tiny steps, you can make it easy and fun to learn.