Tummies are rumbling. The teacher is rambling. And all eyes are on that fate-defining circular messenger on the wall: the clock. 

In case you didn’t catch on, we’re describing the end of the school day (or, perhaps, any part of the school day) where kids are staring, waiting for the clock to strike just the right time for the dismissal bell to ring. 

Did you ever wonder how exactly children learned to understand the clock? Or how you can help your children learn time quicker?

This is a helpful guide for how to easily teach kids to tell time:

1. Start with the basics

An easy way to start teaching time is to use basic units of time. For example, the classic sand timer. We start by teaching about the minute. Once a day, you create a habit of watching the minute sand timer run out. 

“Yay, we waited for one whole minute!” 

It’s mesmerizing for children to watch the sand run out.

2. Colored timers

This is especially helpful for nap time, quiet time, playtime or any other kind of “time” you want your children to understand. 

You see, simply telling your children to go and do something for, say, 30 minutes, is ineffective. They don’t know what you mean and they certainly can’t see what you mean. But colored timers, like the one shown below, can help children start to understand what the time limit you set actually feels like:

The red color on the timer slowly disappears as the time fades away. Now, when 30 or 45 or 60 minutes time passes, children will be able to see how close they are and more clearly understand what that amount of time feels like. 

3. Use characters and stories

Anyone remember “Zero the Hero” from elementary school? No? Just us?

Regardless, all human beings, not just children, are drawn to stories and characters. So giving the numbers on the clock names can help your children better understand time. 

Here’s an example:

Let’s say 8 AM is breakfast time in your home. So you’ve got morning 8 and evening 8, two different characters. Morning 8 has a bowl of cereal in hand and backpack on, ready for the day! Evening 8 has their jammies on and a toothbrush in hand, ready for night.

When the little hand, the “Mr. Hour” hand is pointing at evening 8, the kids can see that it’s jammie and toothbrush time

12 PM has a lunchbox handy or is eating a sandwich, while 4 PM has soccer cleats on, ready to start practice. 

Turn the numbers on the clock into characters your children can relate to. Draw the characters on paper, cut them out, and put on the wall around a clock so children can see what character it’s time to emulate. 

For bonus points, give the numbers backstories that will make your children care. 

We’ll leave you to your creativity for that part. 

4. Use themed calendars

Using snowy-themed December and flower-filled May calendars will also help children understand the concept of days, weeks and months.

 

5. Create “time journeys” to show distance

What do we mean by that?

So far, we’ve offered ways to help children understand basic units of time like minutes, what it’s like to experience longer durations of time, how to identify what time it is, and how to recognize different seasons of time in a year.

But one of the more difficult challenges of teaching time is the concept of “time distance.” 

That is, that there is still an hour between now and dinner. Or two hours between now and grandma and grandpa’s visit. 

Telling your little ones “only two more hours” doesn’t always communicate a clear message…

One way to teach this is to create a journey or timeline. You cut out images of valleys and rivers and mountains and roads, and place them on a clock between the intervals of time. Then, you teach children that “the hour hand has to travel down the black road” or “the hour hand has to climb the big mountain” before the anticipated time arrives.

Visualizations are everything

As you can see, helping children visualize time is key. By showing sand timers, characters, images of seasons and literal journeys for the hands of the clock to travel, children can begin to see with their own eyes how time works.

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