Teaching the concept of time to preschoolers is no easy feat. Since it is such an abstract concept, children need to be given many opportunities to experience it and understand it.
While you may want to dive into teaching kids how to actually tell the time, it is important that they first develop a concept of the passing of time.
They need to experience what a certain length of time feels like and that we measure many aspects of our lives in terms of time, from the way we run our day to the way a year unfolds.
Here are 14 tips and ideas for teaching kids about time.
1. Use Age-Appropriate Activities
Telling the time is a challenging activity even for children in the first grade. It’s important that they have many, many experiences in the preschool years to learn the concept of time, without being expected to reliably “tell the time.”
Remember that young kids are learning the decimal system, with 10 as the base number. It can be confusing for them to learn that there are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour and 24 hours in a day.
Time activities for preschoolers need to be planned with a child’s age and level of understanding in mind. They are not yet ready to learn to properly tell the time, but they can certainly be introduced to all the concepts in fun, interactive ways.
2. Keep a Daily Routine
The best way to teach time is to allow kids to feel the time moving through the day.
Keep a daily routine – whether at home or school – and make sure your kids know that routine. It should be predictable so that kids know what to expect.
Predictable routines are great for teaching the concept of time to kids, but they also help them feel secure and safe.
Name each part of the routine and assign a particular time to it. For example:
- 8 o’clock is outdoor free play time
- 9 o’clock is circle time
- 12 o’clock is home time
Remember that routines are great but should always be flexible, to account for life’s changes or learning opportunities that pop up in the moment. Use the change to explain to kids how you’ll be using your time differently today.
3. Make a Daily Routine Poster
Time is a concept that you feel, but we also have visual representations of time – such as a watch, clock face or digital clock.
The first way to introduce this concept of “reading time” is to have a visual cue of your daily routine.
Make a poster together with your kids, outlining the major activities of the day. These are great for doing at home or at school.
The activities in the routine can be drawn (for younger kids) or written in words, which also helps develop early literacy skills, as kids get used to seeing the words bath, dinner, brush teeth, etc.
Refer to and point to the poster throughout your day. With time, kids will start to use the poster to check on their own what activity will come next.
4. Sequence Cards
Create cards with pictures of the daily routine and get kids to do a fun sequencing activity, putting the activities in the order in which they occur on a typical day.
Draw these, or get your own sequencing cards by downloading the FREE printables at the end of the post.
5. Point Out O’Clock
Every hour, point to the clock in your classroom or home and call out the time:
- It’s 9 o’clock
- It’s 2 o’clock
Then, refer to the daily routine poster and find out what happens next.
While it is challenging for kids to learn to tell the time, it’s easier to start with the hours and leave the minutes for later. They will get used to hearing the times they associate with the morning, afternoon and evening.
Teach your kids to say “o’clock” and introduce am and pm when they are mature enough to understand.
6. Feel Time Passing
Use as many opportunities during the day as you can to give children a sense of what different times feel like.
Give them 5 minutes to tidy the class so they can get a sense of what 5 minutes feels like, or how long “10 minutes left to finish your art” is. Tell them playtime will be for half an hour, even if they don’t really know what that means.
Introduce seconds as well. A good way to do this is to use timed brain breaks when you are transitioning between activities or need to give kids a break to refocus them, such as asking them to do jumping jacks for 30 seconds.
You could also refocus kids by sending them out to play and telling them to return in 5 minutes.
By the time children are old enough to learn to tell the time in increments of 5 with the minute hand, they will have a better understanding of how long 5 minutes is.
7. Use a Countdown Timer
To help kids conceptualise a particular length of time, and illustrate how time can run out, use clean-up songs with countdown timers.
They provide a visual timer so kids can watch the numbers count down. For young kids, 3 to 5 minutes is long enough.
8. Aspects of Time
Time is about many aspects – the time in hours, the time of day (morning, afternoon, evening), days, weeks, months, seasons, years and periods. Time covers everything from a split second to a lifetime.
Build activities into your preschool themes to teach kids about the school year, seasons, special days during the year, months of the year, etc.
9. Talk About Time
Introduce the vocabulary of time by using it continuously, in context. Children need to frequently hear you using vocabulary like:
- Five minutes.
- Half an hour.
- This year, last year, next year.
- Today is Monday. It’s the first day of the week.
- Tomorrow is Tuesday.
- Yesterday was Sunday.
- Next week we will…
- The minute hand is at the bottom so it’s half past 7.
- Summer is coming soon.
- Lunchtime is at 12 o’clock.
- We are at school for 5 hours every day.
- This afternoon we are going to visit granny.
- Your birthday is in 2 weeks’ time.
Instead of reciting the days and months by memory during circle time, rather talk about these concepts when they are relevant.
10. Analogue and Digital
Teach kids that there are two different ways to show the time. One is by reading the hands on a clock or watch face, the other is by reading the numbers on a digital clock.
Explain that nowadays digital clock time can be found on mobile phones, computers, a car’s dashboard, etc.
11. Make Watches and Clocks
One of the first activities for teaching time to kids is of course to make watches or clocks. These can be made with cardboard or paper plates. Use split pins to hold the hands.
Don’t worry about the numbers being accurately written or spaced, especially for preschoolers.
There are other activities you can try with clocks – such as finding pictures of them in magazines and making a collage with them or going for a walk and pointing out watches and clocks around them.
Have a discussion with kids about time. Ask them what they know about it, how we tell it and why we need to know what the time is.
Discuss how you can tell the time from the sun rising and falling every day, and how people told the time in the past (with sundials and other methods).
Show children pictures of pendulum clocks, cuckoo clocks, pocket watches and other ancient clocks, and how they have changed over time to include smartwatches and watches with GPS.
13. Baking and Cooking
Baking and cooking with kids is a great opportunity for teaching them about how we use time when cooking, and it also gives them a feel for the passing of time.
Make statements such as these:
- Put the timer on for 30 mins.
- We have to beat the egg for 1 minute.
- Before we can put it in the oven, we must pre-heat it for 10 mins.
- Bake the cake for 35 minutes.
- Cool it down for 5 minutes before eating it.
14. Celebration Days
Celebrating special days that repeat during the year gives kids a sense of when they occur during the year and how many activities and traditions happen every year, such as birthdays, anniversaries, religious holidays, national celebrations, etc.
Use these occasions as a chance to tell kids about time and its role in our lives.
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