Telling the time requires a complex set of understandings; while it isn't something that preschoolers will pick up easily, you can begin to sow the foundation by learning the language of time and looking at clocks. Time is an abstract concept, that we have a precise name for every minute, every second even, that has fallen in history is a wild concept to grasp.
Start talking about time during the day, note that "It's eight o'clock, let's have some breakfast", "It's ten o'clock, let's have a snack", "It's half past twelve, let's have some lunch", and so on. Young children will begin to understand that there are names for points of the day, and that certain things happen at those points. If you have a chiming clock at home or you live within earshot of a town or church clock, then start to observe the 'bongoing' and have your little ones tell you what hour it is.
Look at a toy clock face and look at where the hands are pointing. Again, even a 'hand' 'pointing' to a number is a concept that has to be understood. Move the hands and show how they point to different numbers, this will help your little ones understand what you mean. Of course, they also need to be able to recognise their numbers up to twelve, and again, a clock face is great for counting and learning these numbers.
Familiarity at a young age will help your children to learn the rest of time telling more easily in due course. They will probably only really grasp this when they reach six or seven, but introduce them to clocks and the language of time and they will begin to understand the whole process.
It's really a vital skill to have and telling the time can be easy to learn if you make it fun. Teaching the clock can be hard, but once children get familiar they will feel confident enough to lear how to tell the time.
Take it slow and keep it nice and easy...
Learning to tell the time is something that takes a lot of practice and some children take years to understand the concept of hands going round a clock to measure the passing hours. However, even though so many children can't grasp the notion of an hour or a minute or indeed the idea of time passing away for ever, its a good idea to get them familiar with a clock face so when the time comes, they are more comfortable with the idea of a clock.
Singing clock rhymes, such as Hickory Dickory Dock, is something that can be done with toddlers. Why not make a clock to learn numbers? Take a paper plate, mark on the twelve numbers in the correct places. Make two hands from some card or a cereal packet and clip them to the plate with a split clip or a paper clip that you've opened up. Then, use the clock to learn and talk about numbers. Set the hands to the right hour for breakfast and lunch etc. Allow your child to colour the clock or stick on some stickers.
As they get older, explain how the hours are marked and talk about the clock face together. Start by looking at the second hand of a real clock and count the seconds together. Chat about things that take 60 seconds to do: wash teeth, eat some grapes, brush their hair. Time some activities together and see how many seconds they take!
Next look at the minute hand. Explain that each time the second hand makes a full trip round the clock that the minute hand moves along one notch. Think about things that take a couple of minutes: read a book, make a drink, get dressed. Time some of these activities.
Go on to talk about the hour hand and show how the hour hand moves along one number every 60 minutes. Think of things that take an hour or so to do: watch a film, go for a long walk etc.
Lots of talking about time, looking at clocks and numbers will certainly help children learn to tell the time, eventually building up to that special day when they are given their first real watch!
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