Learning to Tell Time

Eliza Clark
October 2, 2013

Time is one of the great mysteries of the world to small children. "When" and "How long" begin a large percentage of the many questions they utter each day. And it only makes sense. Just imagine never knowing what time it is, or how long it might take to, say, bake cupcakes—could be two minutes, could be two hours, you just don't know. That's mighty frustrating to a hungry preschooler.

Here are a few ideas for tapping into children's natural yen to understand time:

Make a Paper Plate Clock

Write the numbers 1 through 12 on the outer edge of a white paper plate. Create hands for the clock by cutting off two half-inch wide strips of black poster board. Make one strip three inches tall and the other five inches tall. Cut off two small triangles from the black poster board. Glue one to the end of each of the strips of poster board. Line up the ends of the two strips of poster board that don't have a triangle glued to them. Poke a closed paper fastener through the pieces of poster board. Then, poke a small hole in the center of the plate. Push the fastener through the hole and spread out the prongs on the back of the plate. Arrange the hands of the clock to the correct time and explain to your child that the shorter hand represents the hour and the longer hand represents the minute. You can use this tool to help your child learn how to tell time or you can set the paper plate clock to an important time (like when a friend will be coming over to play) and then set it next to a real clock so that your child can begin to understand the passage of time.

Play the Game How Long Will It Take To...

Developing a sense of the passage of time is difficult for preschoolers. You can help them learn by doing this activity. Have your child estimate how long it will take to do something such as walk to the park or drive to preschool. Use a watch or clock to time how long it really takes, and then compare your child's estimate with the actual time and discuss it with her. If your child estimates it will take 5 hours to drive to preschool, explain that it only took 10 minutes and that 5 hours is a really long time. Continue to do this over time, and your child will feel a sense of accomplishment as her estimates get closer to the actual time.

Make Good Use of This Shape Sorting Clock

Melissa and Doug's well-made wooden teaching clock captures the interest of young toddlers, and is a valuable tool for teaching number recognition and time-keeping to older preschoolers. The designers have thought of everything! Ingenious visual cues help children figure out shape sorting far beyond the standard triangles, circles and squares, and get a handle on their hours and minutes (i.e. colored wedges demarcate minutes in increments of five). In no time at all, it will be your little one pointing to the clock, White Rabbit style, and saying, "Mommy, we're late, we're late" (for a very important date)! And you will feel, like Alice, a bit disoriented by this new wonderland where your baby suddenly knows what time it is.

Get your child his or her very own egg timer. Kids have endless fun timing just about anything. They especially enjoy holding their parents to promises like "just five more minutes"!

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