Can Your Child Picture Time?
You told your four-year-old you would be done shopping in ten minutes, but it did not stop his fussing or the tantrum.
You leave behind the grocery cart you spent the last hour filling, escaping under the frown of a young clerk who now gets to put it all away. You have no food—and you get to repeat this all again another day.
Your grade-four daughter, with her typically impeccable timing, informs you that she failed a test at school. You struggle to hear what she is saying as you strap your flailing preschooler into the car seat.
“What was the test on?” you ask.
“Just some time stuff.”
“You mean like telling the time?”
“Yes, but we had to draw it on circles.”
When you were young, you recall, you already knew time by the age of six, and you covered it in school in grades one and two. It was easy. It never occurred to you that your own child would not know it, especially at nearly age ten. How did she get by all these years?
There are ways to develop your child’s understanding of time and teaching him or her how to read any clock without relying on how the school curriculum handles the topic. The importance of placing analogue clocks with large numbers (not Roman numerals or line markings) throughout the household cannot be overemphasized. Main areas where your child eats or prepares for school or bedtime are good places to hang an analogue clock, including in the bedroom.
Before the child’s understanding of time is secure, discourage the exclusive use of digital display within the household, and remember to cross-reference digital time with what is displayed on an analogue clock. Be aware that children naturally gravitate toward digital clocks because the technology looks “cooler” and they are easier for them to read. In essence, they are passively reading off the numbers, making them look knowledgeable, without understanding what that time really means relative to the rest of the day. You can check this by having your child read an analogue clock, especially if it is off the hour, to see if she really knows what time it is.
Tracking down an inexpensive analogue clock with legible numerals for a young child is well worth the effort. It facilitates learning how to tell time, gives the child a better “feel” for the passage of time as well as relativity within a day, and helps to prime the child for math concepts later introduced at school, from manipulating numbers in basic operations to fractions to conversions.
Developing the concept of time begins in the preschool years. This is when children typically do not have an understanding of it, which is one of the reasons why carrying out certain activities is so difficult with young children. The first step is for you to picture the world through their eyes. Telling your child “We’ll be done shopping in half an hour” is meaningless; she does not have a clue how long her torment will last. She may even assume that Mom does errands for fun because, frankly, why else would she do them? It helps to be honest with your preschooler. “Look, I don’t like this any more than you do, and I’m tired too. But we need to buy food or we won’t have anything at home to eat. When we’re done, we can both do something we enjoy.”
This puts you in her camp, not against her, and is helpful even if she is tired or frustrated. However, since preschoolers struggle with emotional control, this may not avert a meltdown, but it does show her that some things in life need to be done whether we want to do them or not. An older child would understand what half an hour was, and might decide she could handle that much, but the preschooler cannot use time knowledge to understand when something unpleasant will end. You can help her by putting it into a format she does understand, which is a sequence of real events. “I need seven more items. Then we will go to the cash register to pay. Then we will go to the park (home, read a story, for ice cream). Can you help me find the cereal?”
Engaging the child gives her something to do as well as a chance to work with you. As you find the items, count them off.
“How many is that? Seven? What do we do now?” Asking this encourages recollection and planning, keeps her engaged, reminds her that the end is near, and assures her that you can be trusted. Just make sure you follow through on everything you say!
At home, events can be related to familiar time points in the day, such as lunch, nap, after this show, when Daddy gets home. Does your child torment you with special events, impatient for Christmas or an upcoming birthday? Draw or buy him a monthly calendar and cross off the days leading up to the event, which you can mark on the appropriate day with a picture. Tell him this is the number of sleeps. (This is a great way to introduce counting to higher numbers, as well.)
After each “big sleep,” you move one day closer to the occasion. A three- or four-year-old child will understand as the days are marked off. He will be able to see for himself how much time has already passed and how much time remains, all the while acquiring an internal feel for the passage of it, and nagging you less. He will also feel less helpless, more autonomous (he can check back to his calendar any time he wants to), and see the reality of the situation.
Here is something that actually works with a child as young as two-and-a-half to three, who has the annoying habit of being a super early riser on Saturday mornings. Put an analogue clock (start with no second hand) in her room where she can see it from her bed. Draw her a simple picture of a life-size analogue clock and tape it to the wall beside the real clock. Pick a reasonable time for getting Mommy and Daddy up. (Unfortunately, that is often as early as 7:00, but it beats 5:30, especially in the summer when the light cues her into thinking it is later than it really is.) Make the minute hand noticeably longer than the hour hand, and call them the big hand and the little hand.
“When the big hand is on the twelve, and the little hand is on the seven, you can come get Mommy and Daddy.” Point to the numbers and hands as you refer to them. If the child is too young to know the numbers, this is a good learning moment, but you can then emphasize, “When your clock looks like this.” You may want to practice by positioning the clock hands to show when they match the picture. A side effect of this exercise is that it teaches the child to analyze and compare, a skill that will be required in school for accurate note taking and many other things.
A four-year-old child may be able to tell you the time on an analogue clock when it is on the hour, or give you the hour that lies closest. Practice this activity with him as early as he is able. As he gets a little older, introduce the half hour and then the quarter hour, and the alternate ways of saying and writing them. Compare them to the digital clock display. Eventually, he will understand there are sixty minutes to get around, five minutes from one number to the next, and be able to count off how many minutes before or after the hour it is.
Why is this important? Learning to tell time is not a let’s-sit-down-and-learn-it-today activity. In school, it may be a “unit” with a definite beginning and end, but in life, it is a gradual process of understanding that starts earlier than we may realize, and simultaneously incorporates and builds additional skills, such as estimating, planning and organizing, recalling sequences, and placing events in a day, week, month, or year on a mental timeline. We, as adults, do this so unconsciously that we do not think to teach the strategies we use to our children, especially the very young ones. Children who have worked with analogue clocks understand the “layout” of a day. The danger of knowing only digital is that one number is like any other, and it is more difficult to develop a relationship to the sequences in a day and to see them in substance.
Analogue clocks may have one other advantage, which is really just another side effect, but an important one. Four- to six-year-olds sometimes use it for adding! They start at a number, say three, and add four to it by counting their way around until they get to seven. If you have ever had an analogue clock near the kitchen table, you may have seen this while your child was eating. You may have seen it while he was doing his addition and subtraction facts for his grade one homework. I have seen my children play with the numbers on a wall clock in this way, waving a finger in the air in front of them as they mentally moved forward and backward from one number to the next. Children are naturally curious and constantly test and explore their environment, and this is a convenient, fun activity to engage in while they are stuck in one place, eating.
The final step in teaching time is to take a clock, move the hands around, and teach your child the different times. She can practice doing it also—until she can read off any time set on the clock, whether it’s 4:00, 2:15, or 12:37. Depending on her age, further mathematical concepts can be applied, from counting by fives to understanding fractions—halves, quarters, thirds, even sixths and twelfths (think pizza slices)—and equivalent fractions. Facts such as sixty seconds to a minute, sixty minutes to an hour, and twelve units of five minutes in one hour, or one full rotation, have tangible meaning and help to prepare the young brain for future applications in math and physics.
Any such tidbits you point out expand how she looks at the world, and ultimately help in school with number manipulation and even subjects such as social studies (organizing and producing time lines). But you may find that the most important aspect of taking these steps is a more confident, self-sufficient child, who begins the process of developing additional skills you may not have connected to telling time on an analogue clock—and, of course, the quality time spent together.