Teach a Child to Tell Time

Is your child developmentally ready?   Does she have the requisite skills?   What methods and materials are likely to be the most helpful to teach a child to tell time?

We’ll cover all that and more.  Telling time is a life skill that builds slowly.  There are add-on skills to the basics you can cover later in your child’s education.  These skills will help your child read a clock as quickly as she reads words, and even manage time more effectively.  You should teach a child to tell time when she’s ready, you’re ready and you have the tools for success.   Why?  ‘Cause it’s easier that way!

“What Time is It?”

“When will we get there?”  “How long do we bake the cookies?”  “Is it snack time?”  “Can I stay up later?”  “When will you be home?”  When your child asks these questions you know that she has an awareness of what time is and how it works.  She understands that numbers correspond to fixed points in the day, and she understands the linear progression of events through time. She understands that time is a commodity that can be bargained for or exchanged.  What’s more, time matters to her!

Before you teach a child to tell time, make sure she is developmentally ready.  If she doesn’t understand or care about the passage of time then you’re going to have a miserable uphill battle on your hands!   Better to wait for your child’s readiness before you teach this skill.  One of the wonderful things about homeschooling is that there’s rarely any need to teach anything merely because your child is in a particular grade or is of a certain age.  Sure, you may have to endure some hard stares and harder questions if a grandparent thinks you’re being negligent by holding off, but what’s new about that?

What if Your Child Isn’t Ready?

If your child isn’t developmentally ready, you can nudge her along a bit.  How?  Talk about time all day, every day.  Show your child it matters by sharing your schedule and talking a lot about “When,” “How long,” and “What time.”

This is a good time to introduce an old-fashioned kitchen timer to your homeschool.   When your child is aware that she gets up at six, has breakfast at six-thirty, watches Dad leave for work at seven and begins lessons at eight, time becomes more real to her.  When you set the timer and explain that you have thirty minutes for the spelling lesson, twenty minutes to read together, and forty-five minutes for math, time becomes very relevant.  If finger-painting can only occur if math, reading and writing are done before snack-time at ten, then you really have the kid’s attention.

All this talk about time and schedules could very well go against the grain for you.  It may not be your style.  That’s OK.  It’s not forever – it’s just until your child begins to show interest in time and gets the basic idea.

Count by Five to Sixty…

In order to be ready to tell time, your child needs to be about to recognize numbers and count fluently.  She should also be advanced in addition to the point that she can “count up” one, two, three and even four.  It is helpful, but not necessary, if she can “count down” two.  Counting by five from zero to sixty is pretty much necessary.  It is very helpful if the child can count up by five from any point.  That may not be clear.  Let me explain what I mean.

To “count up” in addition means to solve a problem such as 7 + 2 = 9 by thinking/saying “seven, eight, nine.”  To a child who is fluent in counting, that’s easy.  For a child who is not fluent in counting, it’s quite difficult.  They generally can’t “count up” from any number but one.  Counting up from any point by five means that the child only has to memorize what fifteen, thirty and forty-five minutes past the hour look like.  She  can read 1:50 (for example) by thinking/saying, “One forty-five, fifty …it’s one fifty.”

Ready, Set, Review!

Yep, I went there, ahh-gain! That’s just the way I roll.  If a child has mastered these basic building blocks needed to learn to tell time, then it’s a good idea to review them a little before you actually introduce a clock or watch and start to teach a child to tell time.  Just a little review.  Practice “counting up” by one, two, three or four.  Practice counting by five to sixty, starting from any and every point in between.  Just a little practice – not a lot.  Usually I dedicate so much time to review and reteaching that the actual skill we’re focusing on takes less time than the review.  That’s actually how teaching math generally works, but not this time.  This time a little review should be plenty.

Now – Let’s Teach a Child to Tell Time!

You’re going to need a few things.  If you don’t have a basic analog wall clock in your home, then it’s time to get one.  They’re cheap – at least they can be.  That’s up to you.  Go cheap or go fancy, it’s all the same.  Your child will need a wrist watch as well.  Again, this should be a plain analog watch.  Get what you can easily afford.  Just make sure it’s not too busy with cute characters and distracting functions.  The only extra features worth paying more for in a child’s watch are toughness and water resistance.  (If you want a tougher wristwatch for your child, try a Swiss Army Watch.  I’ve been wearing the same one for 30 years.)  Both the watch and the clock should have an hour hand, a minute and and a second hand that are easily distinguished from each other.  The hours should be labeled with numbers.

You will also need a few worksheets and a card stock practice clock.  click here for a printable you can use for both. 

Time Out for a Warning About Useless Teaching Aids

Please don’t buy one of those adorable “learn to tell time” clocks or watches.  I hate to see people waste money and saddle themselves with junk.  Those toys have the minutes printed on them in five minute intervals.  The manufacturer labeled the toys in a way that makes it easy to explain minutes, seconds and hours.  Sadly, these toys foster dependence on a labeling system that doesn’t exist anywhere but on the toys.  Your kid will rarely encounter a real clock labeled with with zero through sixty minutes around the face.  It just doesn’t happen in the real world.  Please don’t waste your money.

OK – Let’s Prepare to Teach

Please print the clock face on card stock and ask your child to fill in the number for each hour.  Encourage your child to take pride in the clock he is building.  Ask your child to cut out the clock and the clock hands as well.

While your child is working on this you can prepare his first lesson.  All you need do is prepare a column of blanks big enough for your child to write two to three numerals on.

I always use composition books for math exercises.  They are very inexpensive and make the child’s work super organized.   I “number” math exercises with capital letters, because this cuts down on the confusion a young child sometimes experiences with numbered math exercises.  Further, I allow the child to pick a colored pencil to do his math in each day, because this tends to make the child happy.  You may wish to adopt some of these practices.  They’ve definitely made my life easier.

Easy-Peasy, Lemon-Squeezy Lessons

Move the hour hand on the paper clock and ask your child to record the hour.  For example, if you move the hour to the eleven, ask the child to record it as “11:”  You want your child to get used to writing the colon immediately after the hour.   Depending on the age of the child, this exercise may be plenty for the day.  Do this each day for three days to a week.  After the first day, deliberately allow the hour hand to fall between two hours.  Condition your child to always record the lower number, except when between the twelve and the one.  In that case encourage your child to choose the twelve.

On the second day of “clock lessons,” ask your child to fill in a clock face by counting by five instead of one.  Explain that those are the minutes.  Do this daily, until your child consistently gets correct answers on both exercises.  I just draw the clock face into the child’s composition book and have him fill in the blanks.  It only takes me a minute or two.  You can print out the clock face and paste or tape it into the composition book.  Do what works for you.

Ask your child to wear her watch whenever practical.  Have her tell you the hour at seemingly random intervals.  Remember to ask late in the hour as well as early.  You want to condition her to read the hour as “2:” when the hour hand is actually closer to the three, for example.

Somewhere between day three and one week, you should get the sense that your child is ready to read and record the minutes as well as the hour.  At this point she will almost always give the correct hour when asked.

Hooray!  You are Half Way There.

Now you can add the minute hand to her card stock “pretend” clock.

Move the clock hands in various realistic positions, and have your child record the hour, then the minutes in her composition book.  At first this is pretty challenging.  Have her write the hour as she’s accustomed to, then count by fives to the minute.  Teach her to select and record the time to the nearest five.  After she’s recorded the time, ask her to read/say her answer aloud.   You will have to help her with “O’clock” and “Oh – Five” at first.

Again, ask your child what time it is at random points during the day.  Make it fun and be positive.  Remember to ask early, late and in the middle of an hour.

After the first day, begin to concentrate at least half of the times you ask her to read from the card stock clock on fifteen, thirty and forty-five minutes past the hour.  You want your child to memorize those points on the clock.  When she no longer has to count by fives to correctly report those times, begin to teach her how to “count up by five” to twenty and twenty-five minutes past the hour from fifteen, thirty-five and forty minutes past the hour from thirty, and fifty and fifty-five minutes past the hour from forty-five.  Encourage her to practice this new skill on her watch when you ask her the time at random points during the day.

To teach a child to tell time and make the new skill permanent, you will have to encourage her to keep practicing.  Have her wear the watch every day and report the time to you regularly.  At this point you should drop the written exercises and the card stock clock in favor of regular arithmetic lessons.  Just remember to ask her what time it is several times a day.

Building On this Strong Foundation

When your child is confidently informing you of the time using five minute intervals on the clock, you can easily teach her to “count Up” for greater accuracy.  You can also teach her how to record how many seconds something takes, or how many heartbeats she experiences in a minute.  These exercises will help her to have a good sense of the passage of time.

Later, when your child has learned to multiply by five, you can teach her to read the minutes on the clock by multiplying the number the minute hand points to by five.  When lessons in fractions come along it is easy to add the concepts “quarter past,” “half past” and “quarter ’til” to your child’s clock-reading repertoire.

While I am none too keen on spiral curricula for mathematics, this is an application where the idea makes sense.  Adding to your child’s clock-reading skills as her sophistication in mathematics increases is much easier than trying to force all these skills upon her at once.

In Closing

This has been one of my longer, dryer posts.  I intended to explain that Math-U-See has an elegantly simple and effective system to teach a child to tell time, but I think this post is already plenty long.   I will write about that curriculum next week.

If you follow these simple instructions your child will learn to tell time – REALLY tell time – faster and more easily than the vast majority of her peers.  She’ll be telling time reliably in less than two weeks.  Her watch won’t just be worn as a fashion accessory and tossed aside when she loses interest.  You won’t spend a year or more wondering why the adorable toy you bought to teach her to tell time never delivered on its promise.

It will simply be “mission accomplished.”

Please drop me a line with your comments and questions.  Tell me how YOU teach a child to tell time!  As always, I love – love – love to hear from you, so don’t be shy.

All the Best,


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This is a wonderful post on how to teach a child how to tell time. I especially like how you empathized knowing when a child is ready to learn. My children are all grown now, but I used a similar process to teach time. We made a “clock” together out of poser board and construction paper . The thing I learned, as you pointed out, was a little a day goes a long way! Very informative article–keep them coming!!

May 10.2017 | 07:48 pm

Julie Harris

Elizabeth – excellent advice! I wish I had something like this earlier in my life. I actually never had kids of my own, but came into a family with ready-made kids when I married my husband. They were 16 and 18 at the time, so obviously they knew how to tell time. But they grew up and had kids of their own – and my daughter did a stint of home-schooling when the boys were younger. This is such helpful information. I do have younger friends that have young children, I’ll definitely pass along your website – it looks like it has lots of useful info. I’m sure they will find it helpful.

May 11.2017 | 11:20 am


    I'm Ready to Go Back and Do it Again

    My kids have left for college. I wish I knew the things I know now. I would love to homeschool them all over again. More women our age should stay engaged in the homeschool community. I plan to stay engaged, and I hope to help with my grandchildren when the time comes. Thank you for sharing my website. I am eager to learn what homeschool families need to read about. Any pointers I get from readers are gratefully accepted.

    May 11.2017 | 12:31 pm


You are so right about the watch! My son was doing very well and then got a snappy digital watch from his Granny. Fast forward several years and I just realized that his analog clock skills are practically gone. After all, he’s had that digital crutch on his arm all day every day. He was simply ignoring all other clocks. We aren’t back to square one, but we are having a major brush up on the skill. Thanks for the ideas and information.

May 11.2017 | 04:56 pm


This is a great way to teach a child to tell the time. The review counting is so important as it reinforces numbers, and is an indication of readiness. This approach is very much a hands on activity, a practical approach for a child to learn the time well.

May 11.2017 | 08:25 pm


What a great article, you break it down so nice and make it easy with a no-fuss plan to stick to. Thanks for the heads up about those ‘learn to tell the time’ clocks, your reasoning certainly made sense! Thanks for sharing!

May 12.2017 | 01:30 am

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