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How to teach your child to tell time

Helping children learn to tell time is a rite of passage. It helps them to be more self-sufficient and ensures that they have a better understanding of what is happening during their day. Time is a conceptual thing, so it may take some creativity to help them process it.

Here are a few unique and effective ways to teach children concepts of time so they can understand once and for all how that pesky wall clock or watch works.

Is your child ready?

One of the most significant factors is your child’s age. If they’re too young, trying to teach a lesson in time will only result in frustration. Before the age of 5, children may not be able to conceptualize time at all, so you should work on the concept of routine to help prepare them.

Build markers throughout the day that tie critical pieces of time to specific activities. Children can memorize that when both hands are pointing up — the 12 marker — lunchtime happens. Stick with only a handful of simple activities.

How to teach your child to tell time

Between the ages of 5 and 6, children are better able to understand what’s happening with that clock. They can read the hour markers and begin to track the clock throughout the day.

As children progress through elementary school or the equivalent, they learn how many minutes and seconds comprise the clock and read all three hands as they move. Older elementary kids can compare clocks and understand that the time corresponds to different spaces of the day.

The fundamentals of time

That’s not as conceptual as it may sound. Here are the fundamentals to check off the list before delving fully into reading a clock.

  • Count to 60. Your child must be able to count fluidly to 60 before understanding the different elements of the clock.
  • Count in increments. Next, your child must be comfortable with counting in appropriate increments. Start with elements of 10 and move to fives.
  • Introduce time periods. First, children must understand how the day transitions in general terms. Help them understand things like “morning” and “afternoon.” Help them associate activities with certain times of the day. When do we eat breakfast? Morning. This builds the foundation of time based on the clock.
How to teach your child to tell time
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Introducing the clock itself

When your child is comfortable with all those things, it’s time to begin associating that knowledge with the clock itself.

  • Start with the hour hand. The simplest and slowest part of the clock gives your child the chance to connect numbers to certain parts of the day. If you always eat lunch at noon, your child can notice the activity with the hour hand.
  • Model how to read the clock. Use simple language at lunchtime. “The little hand is pointing to 12. I know that it is 12 o’clock. Time for lunch!”
  • Introduce the minute hand. When your child can comfortably identify the hours, introduce the concept of the minute hand. Remind your child that there are 60 minutes in one hour and model reading the clock. We are finished with lunch. It is 12:30!
  • Be patient helping children multiply by five. When the long hand points to the one, that actually means five. Pointing to six means 30. This can take time and patience.
  • Encourage them to practice regularly and guide them as they keep learning. Eventually, the clock will begin to make sense, and they’ll be able to tell time confidently.

Remember to make it concrete

Time is hard to visualize and understand without concrete meaning. Just introducing the numbers of the clock isn’t going to help children understand. Instead, they need to be able to connect those hours to specific activities or things they can see.

For example, if your child is an early riser, they may like to see that the hour hand points to the six when the sun rises. Lunchtime is also a great thing to tie to the clock. Naptime, bedtime, sunset, dinner, snacks, and even when parents come home — all these activities help a child begin to understand the passage of time.

Above all, remember your patience

Children won’t learn to follow the clock overnight. It can take months of work to help your child fully understand what we mean when time passes and to build their understanding of the clock. Work on the fundamentals and help your child along the way.

Having patience will encourage your child to keep trying, and soon, your child will have the confidence he or she needs to read the clock without you. Just keep trying and give your child all the tools to understand the time and read that analog clock without fear.

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