How do I help my child to tell the time?


Learn to read a wall clock

How do I help my child to tell the time?

Learning to tell the time is not an easy process for any child. So how can you help your child? The simple answer is to break it down into separate learning stages, simple and manageable.

From playing to sleeping to eating, there is a time for almost everything you and your child do. Telling the time might seem like second nature to most of us now, but we all had to learn at some point. But how?

The simple fact of knowing the difference between night and day is your child’s entry ticket into a world managed by time. Crazy as it sounds helping your child learn to tell the time is not simply about teaching them to read a clock. Simply put how can children be expected to read the time if they do not have a basic understanding of what time actually is?

Just as you would not expect a child to start reading before they could talk, telling the time is a developmental process which also takes place in stages. From an early age, children are cultivating an awareness of things which have happened, things that are occurring in the moment and things which are to come. By learning about past, present and future, children can begin to place logical order into their lives and so make sense of the things happening around them. As Albert Einstein once said, "The reason time exists is so that everything doesn’t happen at once".

albert einstein time

Through familiar routines, children are able to make sense of the different times of the day. Using routine, a child can understand the sequence of events in the day, helping them to associate specific events with particular times, such as morning equals breakfast, evening equals bedtime. Giving children visual timetables of their day, so they can identify the different events which take place is an excellent way of helping them learn to 'see' time.

Sing songs about time, such as ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’, and make up rhymes to help your child remember ways of telling the time. Get creative. Make a clock with your child and decorate it with images of things which happen at particular times of their day.

There are many ways in which you can help your child if they are struggling to tell the time, but probably the most important is to talk to your children about the time and involve them in time related tasks.
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Telling the time is hard. Really, really hard. It can be frustrating, for you and them, especially when you’re doing everything you can to help them.
Here are small collection of reasons why your child may still be having difficulties and some suggestions to help.

1. They can’t count to 60.

It sounds obvious, but if your little one is struggling to count big numbers, then asking them to read a clock face is going to be an impossible task. They need to be able to count to 60 confidently and securely.
How can you help: Make a conscious effort to count out loud any time you are doing a countable task. For example, as you walk up and down stairs, when loading or unloading the shopping, serving dinner, hanging out washing. The list goes on and on.

Any time you do something repetitive, count! Get them to join in with you and make it a game. Who can shout numbers the loudest or whisper the softest? Who can race to the number ten or twenty the quickest?
Challenge: Count forwards and backwards. Start from different numbers. E.g. Count forward from 35. Count backwards from 63.

2. They don’t know their 5 X Table.

Just like point 1, if they can’t count in fives, it will be almost impossible to understand the clock face. Instead of focusing on the concept of time, your child is frantically trying to calculate the answer. See how the image below segments the division of 60 minutes into 5's

Clock 5 times table

How can you help. Get your child to count up and down in fives, quicker each time. Once they are confident with the five times table, they will be much more confident in navigating a clock face.

Challenge: Use a clock and point to different hours on the clock and ask your child to call out the appropriate multiple of five. E.g. when you point at the “3”, your child should call out “15”.

3. The hidden scales are not explained.

There’s the numbered scale 1 to 12 on which we measure the hours, but there’s also the hidden scale, marked only with small dashes, that counts 1-60 relating to both minutes and seconds. When we are talking about minutes on a clock face we might point at the number “2” and expect a child to say “10”. Worse, we might point at the “10” and expect them to say “50” or “ten to”. Then we throw into the mix quarter past, quarter to and half past. For some kids it feels like the rules change each time they have a go.

How can you help: Slow down and tackle one scale at a time. Help them make their own clock face on a paper plate, and add the dashes for the minutes only (no numbers) in the correct positions.



Cut out a minute hand and put it in different positions. Ask for “O’clock”, “half past”, “quarter past” and “quarter to” only, until these four positions are solid. Only then, begin asking for the other positions such as “five past” and “five to”. Practice over and over until they are confident. If they make mistakes, that’s ok. Just correct them and carry on.

Challenge: Once all the 5 minute positions are solid, challenge your child to see if they can do the in-betweens.

4. If having two scales wasn’t enough, we have three hands!

Which hand is important for which scale? No wonder it’s confusing! I'm confused just writing about it! Your child is being bombarded with information and being asked to make a lot of decisions all at the same time.

How can you help: Go back to your paper plate clock and use a split pin to add some paper hands to your clock. First, just use the hour hand. Show how it moves in a clockwise direction, very slowly. Get them to go around the clock saying “one o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock…” and then get them to set the hour hand whilst you call out numbers.

Once they are comfortable with hours, take the hour hand off, and put on the minute hand. Remind them of their 5 x table and go around the clock, first in order, then out of order, calling out how many minutes past or two the hour it is.
Challenge: Put both hands on the clock. Set them to a time and then ask for either the minutes or hour. Mix it up so they have to stay on their toes and decide whether you’re asking for the big or small hand.

5. What actually is time?

That’s a bigger question than we can answer here! But from a child’s point of view, time itself can be very confusing. It can go so slowly that we feel time has literally stopped, or so fast we blink and miss it.

We can also experience time differently from those around us. Imagine being forced to sit through a terrible movie that your partner is loving as one example. Another example is when we tell those little white lies about time when we say “I’ll only be one minute” when we actually mean ten minutes.

Helping your child see that the clock is measuring the same time that we experience and use to frame our day can really help.

How can you help: Talk about what each unit of time is. Does it take an hour to brush your hair or to walk the dog? Will it take 5 minutes or 40 minutes to lay the table for dinner? How many toys can be cleared away in 4 minutes?

By helping them to understand the concept of time, measuring it will make more sense. Talk about longer periods of time, such as days, weeks and years.

Challenge: Work out how many seconds are in longer periods of time such as a week, or a year.

Let's not forget we live in a digital age, with many children only seeing clocks that are digital. Have a walk around your house and see how many digital clocks you have. They are on the microwave, bedside table, TV, mobile phones and tablets. Compare that to analogue and most households probably have far fewer.

How to help: Ensure you have plenty of analogue wall clocks in the house and find excuses to use them. Ask your child to tell the time with you several times a day. For example, tell them that tea time is at half-past four and ask how long they have until that time. Is it long enough to do a drawing, run around the garden 10 times, have a bath…? Treat them to a wrist watch, so that they always have a clock face handy.

Ideally a child should be able to tell the time by age six or seven therefore if they are still having difficulties then they may have an underlying condition which they may need help to resolve.

Dyscalculia often looks different at different ages however common symptoms of dyscalculia include having difficulty with mental math, trouble analyzing time and reading an analogue clock, struggle with motor sequencing that involves numbers and often they will count on their fingers when adding numbers.

If you feel your child may be showing the above symptoms speak with your General Practitioner who will be able to offer guidance and support.

I hope the above helps your child master this lifelong skill!

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