Learning to read the time on a mechanical clock is harder than it might seem – this is usually realised when you start helping your child learn it. To understand it, the child needs to understand different mathematical concepts. Understanding the passage of time is very important for reading time. Here are some ideas that can help when your child is learning about clock time.

Learning starts with understanding what time even is. Only then can the ability to read time to the nearest minute be developed.

The stages of how children learn to read a clock

When should you start teaching your child to tell the time on a mechanical watch? “Often you can start teaching clock time around the age of six or seven – this is the age when children start to understand the passage of time, the concepts of past, present and future,” says Sarah Miller, a teacher with more than ten years’ experience, on Very Well Family. “This is also the age when children have the mathematical skills to read the numbers on an analogue clock,” she says.

Learning to read the clock requires… Yes, time. First-graders can learn to tell the time on a mechanical clock to the nearest hour and half-hour. By second grade, it can help to have a child telling the time to within five minutes, and maybe even a minute if they’re ready. Learning to tell the time can continue up to the age of eight.

Preparations

Before learning to tell the time, children need to have a basic understanding of the passage of time. They need to know that time is divided into units such as days, hours and minutes. “It is useful to use words about the passage of time such as morning, afternoon, noon, night, before and after, later – it is good to include them in everyday conversations,” advises special education teacher and homeschooler Matea Padilla. “Introduce your child to the idea of five minutes, for example by setting a timer for this period, starting and finishing an activity at a certain time,” she encourages.

To help children understand the concept of time, you can talk to your child about his daily routine. “One of our favorite activities is to use cards that list the chores the child or parent does during the day. Then I ask the children to put the cards in the order in which the daily chores are done – what happens first, then and later,” says Miller.

Children also need to learn some basic math skills before they can fully tell the time on a mechanical clock. They need to be able to count to 60 and recognise and read the numbers one to 60.

Although telling the time to the minute will eventually require them to be able to add numbers, these skills are not necessary at the beginning of learning about timekeeping.

Steps for teaching time reading

Timekeeping is an abstract process, so teaching it to young children requires a lot of concrete, hands-on support.

Useful tools for teaching children to read a clock:

An analogue clock, where every minute or every fifth minute is marked;

a toy clock where both hands can be moved;

clock prints with the hours divided into “pizza slices” for each big number.

Step 2. Learn to recognize full hours

Once your child is familiar with the parts of a clock, you can start showing him what the hours look like. Teach them to first use the hour hand to tell the hour, and then check that the minute hand is on top of the “12”.

Practise – ask what time the clock shows, inviting the child to set the time on the clock. For example, you could say: “Can you show me what five o’clock looks like?

Matching the time to the routine can also help to explore it. “If your child usually goes to bed at 20.00, you can tell him that when the clock says 8.00, he will have to go to bed,” recommends Miller. He will already know that ‘eight’ and ‘zero’ mean bedtime.

Step 3. Learn to recognize the time to half an hour

When your child is good at telling the full hour, give him half an hour.

When starting this activity, it is very important to point out that the hour marker does not always point directly to the big number. Tell the child that we always look at the longer hand, which represents minutes, but the hour hand is shorter.

Children can stay in the stage where they can tell the time to the half-hour for a while. In the meantime, they should learn to count by fives.

One way to help your child realize that the hour hand does not always point exactly to its number is to draw lines dividing the clock into similar ‘pizza pieces’. Label these ‘pizza slices’ with the hours they represent.

For example, a ‘slice of pizza’ indicating that the hour is two would be from two to three o’clock. Whenever the hour hand is on this ‘slice’, the time starts at two.

Step 4. Learn to tell the time in five-minute intervals

When your child can count to five fluently and automatically, you can start teaching him to tell the time in five-minute intervals. In this step, you will need to explain that they can count in five-minute intervals throughout the day to find out how many minutes are past the hour.

Continue to work only until thirty minutes past the hour, for example at 5.15, 5.20 or 5.05, but not at 5.45 or 5.50. It is best to avoid time beyond the thirty-minute mark until the child is cognitively ready, closer to the age of seven . “This can be a difficult concept for children and often requires extra practice,” notes Miller.

Step 5. Teach minute time beyond 30 minutes

Reading times such as 3.45 or 6.55 can be confusing, as this is when the hour hand approaches the next hour. For example, when the clock shows 3.50, young children will often read this as 4.50 because the hour hand seems to point to 4.

When the child seems ready, take the toy clock and let them watch the hour hand move slowly from one number to the next as the minute hand turns. Then start teaching how to determine, for example, the hour(s) and the 40 and 45 minutes. Finally, move on to times such as an hour and 50 or 55 minutes.

Explain to your child why the hour hand may look as if it is pointing to 3 when the time is 2.55 p.m. If you divide the clock into ‘pizza slices’ to represent the hours, it is easy to explain that the hour hand is not quite on the next slice of pizza.

Knowing the time is a life skill, so find opportunities to use clock time throughout the day, incorporating it naturally, and gradually your child will become a master of telling the time.