Teaching young students how to tell time has become a lot more challenging. Back in the day, when asked what time it is, a child simply looked to the round clock hanging on the wall.
Today, however, children don’t think in terms of wall clocks. When asked what time it is, a young child will likely check their digital device—or, in some cases, their own cell phone—and the answer will be displayed.
Even so, time-telling remains an important skill every student needs to learn—from pre-kindergartners who need to know when story time begins to pre-teens who must be ready for the school bus.
In this article, we’ll explore the challenge of teaching young children essential time concepts.
From Abstract to Concrete
Time is an abstract concept that has little meaning for very young children. They are unaware of time and they don’t use time skills to get through the day, week, or month. During these early years, adult make time adjustments for young children. But soon a child recognizes time as an important concept to grasp.
That’s why it’s smart to introduce young students to the abstract concept of time rather than immediately delve into the numbers. This will get a child comfortable for what’s to come. For example, make it a habit to announce when an event—circle time or center time—will occur and announce when those events are over. Teachers can also use a stopwatch or timer to time some of these favorite activities to help students think in terms of intervals.
Learn the Numbers
Children must recognize numbers up to 60 in order to tell time. Confusion about numbers or their correct order can seriously handicap a child learning to tell time. Teachers can help a child learn double digit numbers by pointing them out throughout the day—for example the numbers above a classroom or the pages in a book—and have the child repeat the numbers back.
Digital and Analog
Children need to easily convert digital times to analog clocks and vice versa. To teach this skill, first introduce an analog clock—as opposed to a digital tool. An analog clock helps with comprehension because children can see hands on the clock which move. An analog clock will also encourage children to think and count in terms of fives. Later, the child will be ready for a digital clock and learning how the up and down buttons indicate different times.
Avoid Confusing Figurative Expressions
Children have difficulty visualizing the concept of elapsed time. Teaching it is even more difficult when students struggle or when they arrive in the classroom with varying levels of foundational knowledge. The best approach? Proceed slowly. Try integrating words like morning, afternoon, and night into the day. Talk about when students eat lunch or what time they are required to go to bed. Be specific about time rather than giving children a quick answer, such as “Give me a minute” or “I’ll be there in five”, that could be confusing for young children who have difficulty adding and subtracting time.
Time-telling is a basic skill children do not automatically learn. It must be taught explicitly. After a few weeks using these tips, teachers should see improvement in both time-telling skills and confidence.
For a deeper look at how to accelerate your students’ mastery of time, check out SDE’s webinar Teaching Time & Money (Gr. 1–3), by educator and math expert Kristin Hilty.