My children love this question. "What time is it Mammy?" is a regular utterance in our house. Why they need to know the time, I'm not sure. They are only 5 and 7 after all, and during the school holidays we're all more relaxed about bedtimes and mealtimes, so it's even less important. With no school day to start or appointments to get to, we can chill out about the time. And yet they still like to know.
I encourage them to have a go themselves. My 5 year old can tell me the o'clock, and is starting to get to grips with half past. The 7 year old has got the hang of quarter past and quarter to, but when they asked me the time at twenty to eight the other evening, the discussion that followed got rather complicated. How is seven-forty the same as twenty to eight? Why, when the long hand is pointing to the eight, does that make forty minutes? Or twenty minutes to something?
Part of the problem is, of course, the fact that we have different ways of saying the same thing. So half past three is the same as three-thirty; ten forty-five is a quarter to eleven; twelve o'clock is midday (or midnight if your children can stay up that late). The five year old happened to ask me, at midday today if it was morning or afternoon. She likes to make sure she hasn't missed a meal, so this is a common question; if it's afternoon she should have had her lunch. We were in the car at midday and so had to hurry home to eat! But was it morning or afternoon? Well, neither, at the exact moment she asked me. And that started another discussion about time.
With preschoolers, parents can help teach time by talking about times of the day, and the order in which we do things. "It's breakfast time now, then we'll get dressed and after that it's time to go to the toddler group." Think back over the day with your two or three year old and talk about what they've done, and the order that things happened in. This gets them understanding that time is sequential, and that there are certain times for certain activities. Make a clock with a paper plate, some hands cut out of cards and a split pin so you can move the hands around, and let them play around, looking at the numbers and beginning to show them the time on the hour. This will be great preparation for starting school and learning to tell the time. Talking about the past as well is as important as times of the day. When you were a baby; when I was a little girl; in the olden days (which is very subjective, as was brought home to me when we were watching Back to the Future a few weeks ago, a film guaranteed to cause confusion around time concepts, and my 7 year old asked me if it was made in the olden days? Yes, when I was your age!)
Show your child different types of clocks and watches. My watch has no numbers on the face, but my children still like to look at it and see if they can work out the time. Our alarm clock in the bedroom is digital and they know that this is a different type of clock, although understanding how the digital display relates to an analogue clock face is tricky. Making a sundial is a great, and very simple activity. Next time you spend a sunny day on the beach, put a stick in the sand and mark where the shadow falls, then keep coming back to it during the day and marking the hours, talking about the way the sun moves across the sky and the shadow moves. "What's the time Mr Wolf?" is a game I remember from school. Play this with your children; as well as being great fun, they start to learn the language of telling the time. There's loads of online games to help kids with time telling too. One of my favourites is on the bbc bitesize page but there are lots more out there.
Once children have been at school for some time and can confidently count in ones, they will begin to learn to count in twos, tens, and then, importantly, in fives. This step is vital for advanced time telling later on, as when you can count in fives up to sixty, you can count round the clock and get to 10 past, 25 past or 55 minutes past. And then if you can subtract you can make the connection between knowing that there are sixty minutes in an hour, so 55 minutes past is 5 to the next hour. We don't do this calculation of course, every time we look at a clock. Experience and practice teaches us that when the long hand is pointing to the 11 on a clock face, it's five to the hour.
Learning to tell the time is difficult; children won't grasp it overnight, and it takes years to progress from playing with a home made paper plate clock to being able to confidently state that the time is twenty to eight from looking at a watch with no numbers. But we can help our kids by talking to them about time, playing games with them, and helping them to use clocks and watches themselves.