Choice Quality Balance

Keeping time, time, time

By on Sep 16, 2014

Unfortunately, teaching children how to tell the time is one of the most difficult things to do. Because time doesn’t fit into the standard 10 / 100 pattern, it doesn’t seem natural, somehow. And yet, if we can’t tell the time, we really struggle in daily life.

Telling the time is an essential skill. And this doesn’t just mean reading the numbers on a clock face! Children need to be able to work out the difference between times. They need to be able to work out how long things take, and what time it will be when things finish. Eventually, they need to be able to read timetables, create timelines and put dates and times into order.

Fortunately, there are loads of simple things you can do every day that will help your children build up their confidence…


For the very young ones:

1. Recognise the days of the week, and order them. Have a simple chart on the bedroom or bathroom door where the day can be changed every morning. Make sure that you say the words out loud as often as possible. Try routines such as ‘Today is Saturday. We always go shopping on a Saturday, don’t we?’ and ‘What day is it tomorrow? Yes – it’s Sunday. What do we always do on Sunday? That’s right – we always play football in the park on Sunday.’

PS: I love the Chris Evans Breakfast Show jingle on Radio 2 – it’s brilliant to sing along with in the car. “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday…”

2. Recognise the numbers on a clock face. Just counting around the numbers is absolutely fine to start with. Later on, you can take away some numbers leaving just 3, 6, 9 and 12 and get children to fill in the gaps. And then take away 3, 6, 9 and 12 and fill in the gaps. Get children to draw you a clock face, but make sure that 3, 6, 9 and 12 are always in the right places.

3. Talk about your daily routine. Make up some flashcards or pictures with simple events on them such as cleaning teeth, getting dressed, going to nursery, watching TV and going to bed. Practice putting them into order – what do we do first? Talk about the events, and use words like ‘first, second, next’. Get children to draw pictures showing – in order - what they do during the day, and find story books that talk about routines.


For the younger ones:

1. Start learning o’clock and half past. Talk about big hands and little hands, just the way you were taught! Remember, when the big hand points to 12, we say it’s something o’clock. And the something is whatever number the little hand is pointing to. So this would be 6 o’clock:

Now, make it relevant. This is six o’clock– which is the time that Dad gets home from work.

Teach the half hour in exactly the same way: remember when the big hand points to 6, we say it’s half past something. And the something is whatever number the little hand is pointing past. So this would be half past ten:

Again remember to make it relevant. Is half past ten when we have a cup of tea, or a morning nap?

2. Keep it simple. Don’t try writing anything down at this point: the written version (o’clock and ½ past) is totally confusing. It’s enough just to know what everything means, and be able to work it out.

If you do want to move on, try drawing clock faces with hands for your child, and asking them what the time is. Or, draw a blank clock face, and ask them to put the hands on to show a certain time.

3. Start counting in 5’s. The next step is being able to tell the time in 5 minute intervals. But to do this, children need to understand how to count in 5’s, and what that means. Use 5 fingers, 5 toes, 5 sweets, 5 beads, 5 pegs, 5 toy elephants… absolutely anything you have to hand. Let children group things into 5’s (counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and put the group to one side. Make another group the same way, and so on. When you’ve got a few groups, you can start counting (5, 10, 15, 20…) and pointing to the groups. Repeat and repeat and repeat until children know the numbers and the sequence. Make up a silly dance, or a silly song, and really have fun counting the numbers – the more fun it is, the more they’ll remember!


For the older ones

1. Tell the time to the nearest minute. This is the next step from counting in 5’s really. Look at clock faces everywhere you go, and work out the time. Don’t expect children to be able to just read the time to start with – even though you can. It takes a lot of practice, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with counting in 1’s or 5’s from a known number. So, your child might know where ten past four is. Count on till you get to the big hand, then ask – how many minutes extra did we count? An extra 4 minutes? So, 10 + 4 is what? Yes: 14. So what’s the time? 14 minutes past 4. Make sure you always finish the working out with a statement of what the time is, so children remember why they were doing the maths in the first place!

2. Learn am and pm. Use am for all morning times, and pm for all times after midday. Use them lots, and make sure that children don’t use o’clock at the same time! It’s either 8 o’clock, or 8am – not both! For the half hour, use half past six or six thirty pm, but not both. If your child has a good grasp of counting in 5’s, this shouldn’t be too big a problem – but they might need a bit of practice.

3. Calculate the difference between two times. This can be as easy or as difficult as you need it to be. You can start using a clock face, with questions such as ‘If it’s half past 3 now, how long will it take to get to 4 o’clock?’ Move on to questions with real life meanings ‘If it’s 7 o’clock now, how long till EastEnders starts?’ and more tricky questions ‘It’s 5 o’clock now, and I’m going to let you play your X-Box for 40 minutes. What time do you need to stop?’


For the advanced

1. Use the 24 hour clock. Children generally love learning the 24 hour clock, because the time is written down for them. You need to teach them to read it properly, though: remember that we don’t use o’clock, half past, quarter to etc - and we don’t use am or pm. The standard way to say the 24 hour time is 24 hundred hours (24:00), or zero 8 hundred hours (08:00). Children also need to be able to read a 24 hour clock, and convert it into standard speak: they need to recognise that 13.00  hours is 1 o’clock AND 1pm – and that they are all the same. That’s where it gets tricky, but practice really does make perfect.

2. Use timetables and calendars correctly. Practice reading bus timetables, train timetables, TV listings, flight times, theatre performance times… anything you can get your hands on. Make up stories (otherwise known as word problems!) for your child: if Beth wants to get to London by 9pm, which train will she have to get from Doncaster? Does she have to change trains? How long does she have to wait at Crewe for her connection?


The most important things:

Make sure you’re talking it through with your child all the time. Children need to know vocabulary, and what steps to take to be successful. For example: Jack finishes school at half past three. Can you draw the hands to make the clock show half past three? Let’s start with the big hand – where does that go to show half past? Now, where does the little hand go? Remember – the little hand has to tell us what number we’re talking about. We’re trying to show half past three. So where will the little hand go?


Repetition – everywhere you go and everything you do is a chance to practice time. Because this is such a tricky skill, it needs constant reinforcement. Try not to ask simple ‘what time is it?’ questions all the time – children will get bored, and give up. But do make it about real life: What time does the bus get here? How long do we need to pay for in the car park? How many hours till your birthday? How long is it till EastEnders starts? What time do we get up in the morning? How many hours sleep did you get?


    1 Comment

  1. Great ideas which link in really well with the objectives of the new national curriculum. Thank you

    Camilla Stanley

    November 1, 2014

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