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Learning to Tell Time

child telling time

Alexandra Grablewski

When Caleb Ravitch, 8, is in the playroom of his home in Hawthorne, California, he runs to the kitchen to see what time it is, despite the fact that there is a big clock on the playroom wall. "Analog clocks frustrate him," says his mom, Lucy. "He'd rather leave the room to look at the digital clock on the microwave."

Most kids after kindergarten don't have trouble with clock basics (like how to tell time on the hour). But, the more complex concepts introduced in first to third grade can be challenging, points out Marilee Abramshe, a third-grade teacher in Congers, New York. And as children have greater access to digital clocks
-- on an iPod Touch or a tablet, for instance, or even on various household appliances from the microwave to the cable box -- their incentive to learn to read an analog clock and the opportunities to practice doing so at home start to diminish.

How can you get your child motivated to master the clock? Spend a few minutes every day getting your kid up to speed on tricky aspects of telling time.

Reading the Numerals

What confuses kids the most about telling time on a clock with hands? "It's the fact that the numbers have two separate meanings," explains Amy Sperrazza, a second-grade teacher in New York City. To get her students' attention, she tells them that the numbers on a clock are double agents -- and they each have a secret identity. "I'll explain that the secret identity of the number one is five, for instance," says Sperrazza. "And that identity comes out -- like when Clark Kent becomes Superman -- only when the big hand is on the number." Swipe her idea, and practice the two identities of each number with your child on your clock at home.

Or, make a simple clock that clearly illustrates the double-agent concept: Leslie Buttonow, a mom in Ronkonkoma, New York, made a practice cardboard clock for her 8-year-old daughter, Alexandra, that contains both the real numbers and each of their secret identities. Says Buttonow: "Seeing them alongside each other really made the concept click for her."

 
Skip-Counting

Quickly being able to count by fives makes learning how to read an analog clock much easier, explains Sperrazza. Practice at home, singing along to the "Counting by 5s" song on SchoolTube.com or "Count by 5s: A Math Song by Mr. R" (you can download either one on iTunes for $1). Point out to your child that when he counts by fives, every number will end in a zero or a five. Once he can easily skip-count to 60, have him point to the "secret identities" on the clock as he listens to the song.

Elapsed Time

Typically in third grade, teachers introduce another potentially tricky clock concept -- elapsed time. "Rather than just showing my class two clocks and asking how much time has passed, I give them an assignment to plan their own day," says Abramshe. "They start calculating that they need 30 minutes for lunch and an hour for homework, and so forth, laying the groundwork for what elapsed time means and how they'll be able to use it." Do something similar at home even if your kid isn't learning elapsed time in school yet: "You can start simply by thinking out loud about your day when you have your child in the car," Abramshe suggests. "You might say, 'I have to pick your brother up at karate at 6 and it's a quarter after 5 now, so we have 45 minutes to get dinner.' " Eventually, work your way up to letting your child solve a problem. For instance, you might tell her that a recipe takes about 45 minutes to make. Then you can ask her, "If you wanted to have dinner ready by 6:30, what time would you have to start making it?"

 
Hands-on Help

If you find that your child is still struggling with telling time, consider buying him a watch to wear and replacing the digital clock in his room with an analog one, suggests Abramshe. (Save the clocks with Roman numerals for when he's a little further along!) For confusion about elapsed time in particular, buy or make a paper clock with movable hands to use for practice (you can check out YouTube or Pinterest for tutorials on making a simple paper-plate clock). Or download the Time Timer app ($3 on iTunes), which displays time as a colorful disk that gets smaller as time elapses. "My son, now a fifth-grader, used it a lot the last couple of years," says Maria Balice, of Elmhurst, Illinois. "He's a visual learner, and it helped him to be able to set an amount of time (say 30 minutes), see it highlighted in red on the app's clock, and watch it dwindle down as time passed."

Tracking Time

Out of habit, you may keep giving your kid reminders when it's time for her favorite TV show, or time to leave for sports practice, or when it's close to bedtime. By doing that, you're taking away any reason for her to check the clock herself. (Oops!) Roy Adams, a dad in Saint George, Utah, allows each of his 9-year-old twins and his 7-year-old daughter to have a 15-minute turn to play video games -- and it's up to the children to tell each other when time is up. "I'll ask my youngest, 'What will the clock look like in 15 minutes when it's your turn to play?'" he says. "After a couple months of this, they all became observant clock-watchers and started reminding me when it was time to leave for school or dance class. I still don't get reminders of when it's bedtime, though."

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Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Parents magazine.