6 Ways Kids Can Learn to Tell Time

Teaching your kid how to tell time seems complicated until you break it down into these six key steps.
child telling time

Alexandra Grablewski

When your child knows how to tell time or at least grasps some of the basics, your life will be so much easier. She'll know what five more minutes with her friend at the playground really means. She'll even be able to remind you that you need to leave soon for soccer practice. Many kids start to become curious about time at around kindergarten age. "When yours does, seize the opportunity to start familiarizing her with the concept," says Florence Harper, lead teacher in the early-childhood-education program at Burrville Elementary School, in Washington, D.C. "But don't begin by trying to teach her to read a clock. There are a lot of skills kids need to master first." We've got ways to give them a hand.

Zero In on Hours and Minutes

You can help your child get a feel for how long a minute lasts by having fun with a timer, suggests Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., the author of A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool. Start by saying, "Let's play this game for one minute, until the timer goes off." After you do that for a while, set the timer but put it out of sight. He can tell you when he thinks the minute is over. If he bolts up after ten seconds, you know that he still needs more practice. But if your child gets it almost right, set the timer for five minutes and ask if he can put on his jammies before it dings. Or set it for 30 or 60 minutes -- and tell him that when it goes off you'll be ready to go to the park. One thing to avoid telling your child: "I'll be there in a minute" when you really mean "I'll be there after I put the laundry in the dryer, check the mail, and feed the fish." Kids often take their parents literally, so using expressions like this can be confusing for them, explains math expert Doug Clements, Ph.D., professor of mathematics education at the University of Denver -- especially when you're trying to teach your child how long a minute really lasts.

Talk About the Past, Present, and Future

Make looking at a calendar part of your child's bedtime routine. Have her cross off the day and tell you something she enjoyed doing. Ask her to remember something that she did yesterday and have a conversation about something she wants to do tomorrow, pointing to those dates on the calendar. Another suggestion: Take several pictures of your child during the day (eating breakfast, going to school, playing in your backyard) and ask her to help you put them in the correct order, suggests Dr. Hirsh-Pasek. Be sure to use the words before and after to reinforce what they mean.

Avoiding Counting Mistakes

Four in five kids can count to 21 by the time they're 6 years old, says Arthur J. Baroody, Ph.D., a specialist in early-childhood mathematics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. What typically trips up the other kids: referring to 15 as "fiveteen" and thinking that "tenteen" comes after 19. To help your kid keep it straight, play store together and pretend you're a customer asking for a certain number of crayons or Legos each time and ask him to count them out. It's a fun way for him to practice.

Learn Two-Digit Numbers

Even good counters have trouble recognizing numbers, especially double-digit ones. For a digital clock, your child is going to have to read numbers up to 59. Point them out in your everyday activities. Show her the 30 MPH speed-limit sign, the shovel that costs $25 at the hardware store, and the weather app on your phone that says it's 47°F outside.

Start Counting by Fives

Counting by fives is a key concept for understanding how a clock measures time. Take out the crayons again and have your child make piles with five crayons in each. Teach him how to count 5, 10, 15 ... all the way up to 60. Then practice counting by fives back and forth with your child, alternating who starts first.

Bring Out the Clock

Once your child starts to become a whiz at numbers, she's ready to work with an analog clock. Take the one off your wall -- or make a clock together using art supplies you have around the house. Start by pointing out the minute and the hour hands. Explain that to read the hour hand she just needs to say the number it's pointing to. But note that the minute hand is tricky, says Harper, and she'll need to use her counting-by-fives skills to figure it out. Then go through the minutes with her while pointing at the corresponding numbers on the clock face, all the way from 5 to 55. You might also download an iPhone/iPad app such as Telling Time or Kids Tell Time -- both of which have fun interactive games that will help your children along the way.

Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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