Introduction to Telling Time (for the early years)



Being able to tell time on an analogue clock is quite a difficult, but incredibly useful skill.

Most children are in middle primary school before they can accurately read and write analogue times, but much younger children can start to get a grasp of the basics, so that later on, the concepts are already in place and the skill development is a little easier.

Try these activities with your pre-schooler to prepare them for more structured and specific ‘time’ work later in their schooling.

  1. Clockwise Spirals

The terms ‘clockwise’ and anti-clockwise’ are a really good place to start your child’s education in the art of ‘telling time’.

To begin with, simply sit and watch a clock that has a seconds hand. This may even be your own wristwatch. Focus on the seconds hand and the direction it is turning around the clock. Ask your child to trace the clock face with their finger, in the same direction of the clock hand. Explain to them that this direction is called ‘clockwise’.  You can also explain to them that if they trace their finger in the other direction, this is called ‘anti-clockwise’.

Now ask them to use their finger to make clockwise loops in the air. Then make some anti-clockwise air loops.

When your child is confident with the two directions, give them a crayon and some paper and ask them to draw a clockwise spiral. Starting small and spiralling out to the edge of the page. You can then try an anti-clockwise spiral.

For an added benefit, develop their scissors skills by getting them to cut along their spiral and create a hanging art work.

  1. Make a Clock

This is such a simple and useful activity to do. As your child gets older, you can make more complex clocks, with the minutes and teaching words such as ‘quarter past’ etc. but for now, a very basic clock will help develop these early skills.

You will need:

  • A paper plate
  • Some Textas or markers (or you may choose to print and cut out the clock numbers)
  • Some cardboard to make the clock hands
  • A split pin or a press-stud to attach the hands

Start by working with your child to put the numbers on the clock face (the paper plate). Begin with 12, then 6, then 3, then 9. Once you have written or stuck those numbers on, you will be able to accurately space the other numbers. Explain to your child how important it is to have the same space between each number, because each number equals 5 minutes.

You may even want to watch a clock face for 5 minutes, so your child can see the big hand movement from one number to the next.

When all the numbers are in position, cut out and attach the two hands.

At this point, don’t worry too much about explaining which hand is the hour hand and which hand is the minute hand, those concepts will be developed later. For now, just create one hand longer than the other and attach them (using the spilt pin or press-stud) to the centre of your paper plate.

You now have a simple clock your child can use for the rest of these activities and for many others.

  1. Earlier/Later

Using your teaching clock (the one from Activity 2) make a time for your child to look at. They don’t need to be able to read the time; you can tell them what it is.

Next, remind them about the ‘clockwise’ movement and the way the hands of a clock turn.

Now ask them to change the time you have made, to a later time. They will need to move the hands clockwise to do this. Read and tell them the time they have made.

When they are confident with this, you can extend them by asking them to make an earlier time.

  1. O’ Clock

Even children who are quite young are able to read and make o’clock times on an analogue clock. This is where you can start introducing the idea of the hour hand and the minute hand.

Using a 12-sided die, roll the die to show a number, then show your child how to make that time on your teaching clock. So, if you roll a 4, make 4 o’clock. Place the small hand (the hour hand) on the 4 and the big hand (the minute hand) on the 12.

If you don’t have a 12-sided die, you can use a 6-sided die and just limit the times you make to between 1 and 6 o’clock.

After rolling the die and completing a few goes of this, your child should become quite confident with making o’clock times.

Then, later in the day, see if you can notice the time on any given hour and ask your child if they can tell you what time it is.

  1. Time Chunks

Nothing will motivate a child to read the time more than the promise of something they love happening at a given time. My daughter learnt that each number represents 5 minutes, through me telling her we could leave for the park “in 5 minutes – when the big hand gets to the 8”.

She would watch that clock like a hawk and let me know when that 5 minutes was up!

Start by reiterating this 5-minute concept to your child. For example: tell them they can have afternoon tea in 5 minutes, when the big hand moves from the 6 to the 7. Or tell them they can stay up for 5 more minutes, till the big hand moves from the 12 to the 1.

Once they understand this, you can further the concept by talking about 10-minute chunks of time, or 15-minute chunks of time.

This is also a fabulous way to introduce skip counting. If the big-hand movement from one number to another is 5 minutes, then moving two numbers is 10 minutes. Tell them you will leave for a playdate in 10 minutes, and see if they can tell you where the big hand will be at that time. Or tell them they need to get in the bath in 15 minutes and see if they can do it without you reminding them.


Remember, telling time takes time, but by breaking it up into smaller, simpler concepts, we can make the process much easier for our children.

Like everything else, the more fun they are having, the more they will learn.

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