What is Time?
Telling the time is the way we mark the passage of events and activities which happen during a day, a week, a year, or even longer. It is an abstract idea, and it takes some practice to master! We can tell the time using a clock or calendar, or by noticing changes which happen around us.
Early skills are based on mastering the language which is used to talk about time. There are many different terms that are used to talk about time passing, and using these terms regularly is a great way to help introduce key concepts.
Here are a few to get started:
- Before / After
- Today / Tomorrow
- Day / Night
- Morning / Afternoon / Evening
- Minutes / Seconds / Hours
- O’clock / Half Past / Quarter Past / Quarter To
- Digital / Analog
Simple routines are a great way of allowing time based skills to build naturally. Clocks, calendars, and schedules placed where they can be seen easily are all helpful in prompting conversations which use the language of time.
Some helpful questions and comments for preschoolers are:
- What shall we do first?
- What happens after lunch today?
- What time does school begin?
- I will eat my apple after my sandwich.
- It’s nearly night time. Let’s get ready for sleep.
- Morning! Time to wake up and get dressed!
Older children can extend their use of time based language with questions and comments like:
- What time is it when the hour hand is on the three and the minute hand is on the twelve?
- How long is it until school finishes?
- What time does the bus arrive?
- I will pick you up at four pm.
- Our train leaves at half past eight.
- It will take us thirty minutes to drive to our appointment, so we should be ready at three thirty pm.
We measure time using units:
Mastering time is about understanding how one unit relates to another, for example:
- 60 Seconds = 1 Minute
- 60 Minutes = 1 Hour
- 24 Hours = 1 Day
As children become more capable of understanding time, they become able to use more of these terms and understand what they mean. At the same time, they can work on understanding how one unit of time relates to another. This helps to understand how a digital or analog clock works, or why we use a calendar to measure the passing of time in longer units such as days or weeks.
Lets look at two different types of clocks:
When we look at an analog clock, we can see two hands. One is for hours and one is for minutes . The hour hand is short. The minute hand is long.
The hands move around the clock together at different speeds. It takes sixty minutes for the minute hand to move all the way around the clock while at the same time the hour hand to moves from one number to the next number.
The hands on clock move in a clockwise direction like this:
There are twenty four hours in a day but only twelve numbers on an analog clock. The day is divided in half into two twelve hour parts. It is important to know when we are reading a clock which part we are in. We use the terms ‘AM’ and ‘PM’ to help with this.
- AM – Morning – Starts at midnight and goes until noon.
- PM – Afternoon, Evening – Starts at noon and goes until midnight.
Did you know? AM is from a Latin word ante meridiem meaning before midday, and PM is Latin for post meridiem, meaning after midday.
Learning to count by fives is important in telling the time. The numbers on an analog clock face represent minutes in groups of five. Although the clock face reads ‘one, two ,three’, when we are counting minutes the numbers represent groups of five like this:
- 1 = 5 Minutes
- 2 = 10 Minutes
- 3 = 15 Minutes
A handy way to practice is to look at a clock face and count by fives, pointing at each number on the clock.
It is also useful to understand how the fractions ‘quarter’ and ‘half’ are important when telling the time.
Sometimes it can be confusing when the numbers on a clock face say one thing, but we use different expressions like:
- Quarter Past
- Half Past
- Quarter To
Fractions help explain why this happens.
There are many digital clocks in everyday life, but do they give us the same information as an analog clock? Yes they do! Analog and digital clocks both tell the time, just in different ways.
On a digital clock face, the hours are written on the left and the minutes on the right. The minutes are not divided into groups of five – they just begin at one and continue up to fifty nine. It takes some practice to be able to read analog and digital time, but it is great to master both. Putting a digital clock in the same place as an analog clock is a great way to start learning!
Time in the Real World
We use time – literally, all the time! Here are some examples:
- Waking up
- Catching a bus
- Starting the school day
- Lunch Time
- Going to sports practice
- Going to a music lesson
- Making an appointment
- Finishing the school day
- Reading a movie schedule
Here are some fun activities you can try to help master telling the time:
- Go on a community outing with check points at particular times of the day – such as two o’clock at the library, three o’clock at the beach and four o’clock at the bus stop to go home.
- Make clock faces using a paper plate and a split pin to attach two cardboard hands, so that the hands can move around the clock numbers.
- Play a game of ‘What’s the time, Mr Wolf?’ to practice the language of time.
- Make cards with pictures of regular activities and then organize them into a sequence to show what comes first, next and last.
- Do some cooking to practice elapsed time (how much time has passed) using a kitchen timer or stopwatch.
- Make cards with the time written as words and corresponding times written as numerals, and then play a matching game to try and match the correct worded cards with the numerals.
- Take photos of clocks in the community and make a clock visual display on a board or wall.
- Do some research about famous clocks, such as Big Ben in London.
- Write notes that explain what activities happen in the home or classroom at particular times.
- Use a schedule or planner each day with times for events included.
- Role model looking at a clock and saying aloud what you think about to read the clock ‘I can see the hour hand is on the 4 and the minute hand is half way around the clock, on the six. I know this means it is a half past time, so it must be half past four.’
- Learn about how time changes around the world, according to the lines of longitude on the globe.
- Find out where the first place in the world to see the new dawn is each day.