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How can you teach your child to tell time?


Reasons why your child might struggle with telling time and exercises to help them.

There are children who take quite a long time to learn how to tell time. Why is teaching them how to tell time so difficult? In this article we will provide an overview of the reasons why your child might be struggling with this, and tips and exercises to help.

- Clocks are complicated!

The simple assignment "take a look at the clock what time it is" supposes a lot of knowledge in children. An (analogue) clock is full of pitfalls for those not so familiar with it. Let's take a look at what is actually involved in telling time on an analogue clock.

In the first place, the hands are different in length and move at different speeds. In particular the large and small hands often create confusion. Children often find linked but opposing pairs of things difficult to comprehend: they know the names or meanings, but which is which? Think of left-right, east-west, front-rear. The same applies to the hands of a clock.

- Prior knowledge is required

Telling time requires children to have certain prior knowledge. In the first place a child learning to tell time should be able to count: hours to 12, and minutes up to 29.
Secondly, your child will need to know the meaning of “to” and “after” and at the same time quickly be able to switch between them depending on the time (i.e. 20 to six as opposed to 20 past six). Also, sometimes adults will refer to the time as six twenty, and the child will have to know this is the same as twenty past six. Quite confusing if you are learning this for the first time! On top of that, it is common to not always mention the minutes, but instead refer to for instance “about a quarter past six”. To teach a child to tell all of these ways apart, it is better to start with one ‘system’, and once this is understood explain how the other ways of mentioning the time fit into this. This way your child will not be overwhelmed.

Furthermore, to add to the confusion, a child will need to understand that when the small hand is not yet halfway to the next number, the previous hour is relevant, whereas if it is past halfway, you look to the next number (e.g. 20 to seven, as opposed to for instance 20 past six). Although this will not be relevant if the time is read in total minutes past the hour (e.g. six forty). Thinking about it like this, it is quite impressive that some youngsters are even able to figure it out at all! Also, this means you should by no means feel that your child is not bright if it is struggling with telling time. It is simply not that easy and might require some time!

Although  most children will be taught how to tell time in school, we would definitely recommend supporting children by also doing exercises at home.

- Which exercises might work?

We would recommend doing a large number of counting exercises, up to thirty and back. This way, your child will become more and more comfortable with the counting element, as a result of which your child will be able to focus on the other elements of telling time. There are a number of board games that use numbers often which might help in this respect.

 Another way of helping your child is by buying a time teaching clock. These are clocks specifically made for children which will give additional information on the face of the clock to help. The same goes for other alarm clocks specifically made for children which contain a cute or cool element/function to make telling time more fun. For instance there are a number of children’s alarm clocks with Disney characters or related to a sport or hobby. Children are generally more likely to focus on something if they are having fun at the same time.

- Digital clocks

A large number of children will already be familiar with the format of a digital clock. After all, digital clocks are everywhere around them, on their mobile phones, computers, TV or kitchen timers. For children who can already tell time on either analogue or digital clocks, it can be a good exercise to practice turning one in the other, by for instance drawing the analogue time corresponding with the digital time and vice versa.

 As with everything, practice makes perfect and patience is key. If a child feels overly pressured to get it right, this might restrict their progress. Just remember, before you know it your child will just ‘get it’ and all your worries will be forgotten!