Teaching the concept of time to preschoolers is no easy feat. Because it is such an abstract concept, children need many opportunities to experience and understand it. Although you may want to jump right into teaching kids how to tell the time, it is vital that they first develop an understanding of time.
It is important for them to experience what a certain length of time feels like and to understand how we measure many aspects of our lives in terms of time, from the flow of our daily lives to the progression of a year. Here are some ideas and tips for teaching preschoolers about time.
Use Age-Appropriate Activities
In preschool, children build a solid foundation of early math skills while engaging in hands-on learning. Telling the time is a challenging activity even for children in the first grade. It is important that they have many, many experiences in preschool to learn about time without being expected to be able to guess the time with accuracy.
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 should be planned with the child’s age and level of understanding in mind. Although they are not yet ready to tell the time properly, they can be introduced to all the concepts in a fun, interactive way.
Keep a Daily Routine
The best way to teach kids about time is to let them experience the passage of time. Keep a daily routine – whether at home or school – and make sure your kids know it. This will help them become more familiar with it.
Predictable routines are great for teaching the concept of time, but they also help kids 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 they need to be flexible so you can adapt to life’s changes and take advantage of learning opportunities when they arise. You can use the change to explain to your kids how you will be using your time differently today.
Make a Daily Routine Poster
Time is a concept that you feel, but there are also visual representations of time – such as a watch, clock face, or digital clock. A visual cue of your daily routine is the first step in introducing the concept of “reading time”. With your children, create a poster that outlines the day’s major activities. 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 words like bath, dinner, brush teeth, etc.
Throughout the day, refer to the poster and point it out. With time, kids will use the poster to check on their own what activity comes next.
Get kids to do a fun sequencing activity by creating cards with pictures of the daily routine, placing the activities in the order they occur.
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. For kids, learning to tell the time can be challenging, but it is easier to begin with the hours and leave the minutes for later. They will become accustomed to hearing the times they associate with the morning, afternoon, and evening.
Teach your kids to say “o’clock” and introduce them to am and pm when they are old enough to understand.
Feel Time Passing
As much as possible, give children a sense of what different times are like throughout the day. You might give them five minutes to tidy the class so they can experience what it feels like to have five minutes left, or how long it takes to finish their art in ten minutes. Let them know that their play time will last for half an hour, even if they don’t really understand what that means.
Introduce seconds as well. You can do this by using timed brain breaks when you transition between activities or need to give kids a break to refocus them, such as asking them to perform jumping jacks for 30 seconds. It is also possible to refocus kids by sending them outside to play and telling them to return in five minutes.
By the time children learn to tell the time in increments of 5 with the minute hand, they will have a better sense of what 5 minutes feel like.
Use a Countdown Timer
Clean-up songs with countdown timers help kids visualize a particular length of time and illustrate how it can run out. Countdown numbers are displayed on a visual timer, so kids can see how much time is left. For young kids, 3 to 5 minutes is long enough.
Aspects of Time
Time is about many aspects – the time in hours, the time of day (morning, afternoon, evening), the days, weeks, months, seasons, years and periods. Time covers everything from a split second to a lifetime. Incorporate activities into your preschool themes to teach kids about the school year, seasons, holidays, months of the year, etc.
Talk About Time
Introduce the vocabulary of time by using it continuously, in context. Children need to frequently hear you using vocabulary like:
- 5 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
Rather than reciting the days and months by memory during circle time, discuss these concepts when they are appropriate.
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.
Make Watches and Clocks
One of the first time activities is of course to make watches or clocks. These can be made from cardboard or paper plates. Use split pins to hold the hands. You shouldn’t worry about the numbers being written or spaced correctly, especially for preschoolers.
Other activities that you can try with clocks include finding pictures of them in magazines and making a collage with them, or taking a walk and pointing out watches and clocks that you see on the way.
Have a discussion with kids about time. Find out what they know about it, how we tell it, and why we need to know the time. Find out how you can tell the time from the rising and setting of the sun 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.
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
Kids can learn about special days that repeat every year and how many events and traditions happen every year, such as birthdays, anniversaries, religious holidays, national holidays, etc. Use these occasions as a chance to tell kids about time and its role in our lives.
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