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Introducing the concept of telling the time

When I worked in schools, one of the topics that used to be notoriously tricky to teach was telling the time. If you’ve got school-aged children, and even if you don’t, I’d really encourage you to take some time during this lockdown to help your kids gain a basic understanding of an analogue clock.

I've just done this with my two children (3 and 5). I did it over several days so each activity I describe below was done on different days. Both children, even my three-year-old, can now tell the time with O’clock and half past. We didn’t spend hours pouring over boring worksheets – everything we did was in short bursts and resulted in them feeling successful (which was a big part of why they wanted to learn the next step the following day). If children feel that something is too difficult or too boring, then it’s no wonder they don’t want to engage with it – we wouldn’t as adults either! So break it down into tiny steps and don’t force it. If they’re not interested in doing it, come back to it later.

So, first, we talked about the time. We talked about what we do at certain times of the day. We acted out the day and looked at an analogue clock to identify the numbers.

Next, we ordered the numbers 1-12 in a line. We played a little game where I pretended I had forgotten all my numbers and they had to correct me. They had a set of numbers each so they were both able to do it.

After that, I made an hour hand out of cardboard. We looked at a real clock and noticed how it was short in length. We went back to the line of numbers and I said when we talk about time, we say the number and then the words “o’clock”. I said various numbers and they moved the hand to point to the number (still laid out in a line) and told me the time saying the number and O’clock.

The next day, we laid the numbers in a line again and this time we did 1 more and 1 less. We talked about how we call each of the numbers hours. I asked, "What is one hour more than 9 o'clock" and they showed me by pointing their cardboard hand to the correct number. I repeated this until they were secure then they made up questions for each other.

Next, we moved the numbers into a circle shape. We talked about which numbers were opposite each other. We raced each other to see who could lay out their clock first. We spent a long time noticing that the 12 is at the top, not the 1. Then I repeated the previous activities of asking them to show me different times on the clock and getting them to say the number followed by O’clock. I made a point of having them spin the hand between the answers in a clockwise direction. When we revisited the “what is one hour more than…” questions I made sure to show them what happens at 12.

The next day, we made a huge clock on the floor and they pretended to be the hour hand and pointed their head to each number I said. I still hadn’t mentioned the minute hand yet.

After that, we made clocks using a paper plate, card and a split pin. We only made an hour hand at this point. Then we repeated everything we’d done before but they showed me the time on their homemade clock.

Finally, when I was sure they'd got that, we went back to putting the numbers in a line but this time I spaced the numbers out a little bit more so there was a clear space between each number. I placed the cardboard ‘hour’ hand between two numbers and talked about the hour hand being halfway to the next number but not there yet. I really emphasised this to help them to see that the number before is the one they say, so for 3:30 they say “half past three” rather than half-past four. We repeated the whole process, “show me half past 3” on your number line, “show me half past 3” with your head on our giant clock, “show me half past 3” on your homemade clock. Then I showed them how to write O’clock and half-past on a digital clock, saying the half-past is written :30 – I didn’t go into why at this stage.

By this point, they were pretty secure at identifying O’clock and half past by the position of the hour hand so next, I adapted a resource from, to make a bingo game. The game boards are analogue clocks showing O’clock times and half past times, and the counters are different colours that I wrote the matching digital times on.

Before we started to play, I showed them the analogue clock faces and asked them to tell the time. They immediately noticed the minute hands on the clocks and said, “we can’t do clocks with two hands”. I told them to ignore it and tell me the time by looking at the hour hand which they did. From there I asked them to look at where the long hand (minute hand) is when it’s O’clock, and where it is when it’s half past. After spotting that the long hand is at the top for O’clock and at the bottom for half-past they were fine.

They got it. Of course, there is still a lot more to learn, I have not introduced the concept of quarter past/to yet, or that the 6 also means 30. But for now, they have a basic understanding and feel confident so are ready and willing to learn the next steps another time (no pun intended!)

I’d love to know if you use this method with your child, get in touch and let me know how it goes.

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