How to Teach Kids Time with Simple, Hands-On Clock Activities

Even before children can tell time, they want to know how long they can play outside and when their parents will return home from work.  They may also notice the hands moving on an analog clock or the numbers changing on a digital clock.

Since schedules are an essential part of a child’s daily life, children naturally become curious about time.  Sometimes, my daughter will sit in front of a clock just to wait for it to make its next move!

These are golden opportunities to teach kids how to tell time.

In this post, I’ll first discuss why the analog clock is important.  Then I will give detailed examples of how to teach kids time with hands-on clock-learning activities at homeschool or in the classroom.  Finally, I will end with a relevant Chinese children’s book recommendation.

Teach Kids Time with Montessori-Inspired Clock Learning activities

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This resource is part of a series on how to teach kids clock and calendar skills:

  1. Interactive Perpetual Calendar 
  2. Calendar Wheels: Days of the week and Months of the Year
  3. Months and Seasons Paper Plate Puzzle
  4. Chinese Zodiac Wheel
  5. Teach Kids Time with Simple, Hands-On Clock Activities (This article)

Analog versus digital clock – What is the difference?

An analog clock is round with rotating hour and minute hands.  Usually, the clock face edge is marked 1 through 12 , but some clocks may have roman numerals or no numbers at all.

Analog clock
Image credit: @Aptcore via Twenty20

A digital clock shows the hour and minutes numerically, eg 8:58 as shown in the image below.  Digital clocks usually have a backlight so that the time is visible in the dark.

Why should kids learn the analog clock?

I read an article from Slate about the current generation’s struggle with reading the analog clock.  Since digital clocks are convenient and ubiquitous, the author was concerned that the analog clock would soon be extinct.  However, the analog clock is an important tool for establishing the concept of time because:

  • Kids can see the hands of the clock move eg, notice the passage of time.
  • The round shape represents the rhythmic cycles of day and night.
  • Mathematically, skip counting by 5s and multiples of 5 can be visualized.  Fractions are introduced through the concept of quarter past, half past, and quarter till X o’clock.
  • An audible tick-tock of a clock can be a nuisance, but the sound represents the rhythm of time.  (However, I avoid noisy analog clocks!)
  • Since analog clocks usually have no back-light, I recommend these for bedrooms. Digital clocks emit a bright, stimulating LED display light which can potentially disrupt sleep.

How to teach kids time with Montessori inspired activities

When I taught my daughter how to tell time, I prioritized teaching the analog clock with Montessoriinspired activities.

My step-wise approach involved regular discussion about time paired with inexpensive, simple, interactive, and low-prep exercises.

Teach kids time, step-by-step

Initially, I had purchased the popular Melissa and Doug Shape Sorting Clock.  After watching my daughter play with the toy, I realized that it was overly colorful and had many irrelevant parts.  She was good at matching the shapes and had already learned her numbers long before we got it.  However, the shapes and colors were distracting from the intended purpose of learning how to tell time.

Since my hunt for a simple teaching clock was unproductive initially, I realized I could easily create my own clock learning materials.  I brainstormed the following objectives:

  1. Introduce the clock as a circle with 12 numbers around the edges.
  2. Understand that 1 hour = 60 minutes
  3. Learn hour and minute hands
  4. Master skip counting by 5s
  5. Recognize modern clocks that have no numbers

These steps are inspired by the Montessori philosophy of isolating and mastering one skill at a time before progressing to the next.  Schools usually teach time somewhere between age 5-8, but we started early based on interest.

I suggest a flexible timeline for proceeding through the teaching steps.  Observe when your child seems to be curious about time, and point out different clocks when you are out and about.  Some kids might get the concept right away while others need to revisit the concept gradually with various examples.

When my daughter was 3, we did “step 1” (hour number matching activities).  Then she stopped caring for a while but became interested in calendar concepts (eg, yesterday/today/tomorrow).

Last spring (age 4.5), she got curious again and learned it well. She still sometimes gets confused when the hour is about to change eg, it’s 3:55 and the hour hand looks like it’s pointing to 4.

Goal 1: Introduction to teach kids time with number matching 1-12

Kids first need to recognize numbers.  You can teach numbers through the following hands-on number toys from Etsy:

Click here to see pictures of our favorite educational Etsy finds!

Since Chinese is a minority language, I wanted my daughter to see a clock with Chinese numbers so that she can think about it bilingually.  The real clocks in our home have Arabic numerals though I have considered getting this Chinese clock.

Below is a clock face pegging activity that my daughter did when she was 3.  Click here for DIY instructions.

We also made a paper plate clock sun craft and re-purposed the plate into the clock face threading activity pictured below.  Each of these activities were helpful for reinforcing the normal clock order while strengthening fine motor skills!

As always, you can tailor the activities to your child’s interests!  For example, if your child likes stickers, you can have the child match stickers to corresponding number!

Goal 2: Teach kids time by learning numbers 1-60

My daughter learned how to count and recognize high numbers with our printable bilingual hundred chart.

Bilingual hundred chart, English & Chinese, learn to count to 100

Goal 3: Teach kids time by introducing hour and minute hands

I finally found a simple wooden toy clock and highly recommend this one.  This well-made clock lets kids focus on the hour and minute hands without distracting colors.  The engraved numbers and minute marks allow kids to feel the important clock components.

When I was teaching my daughter, I did not label the hands since I wanted my daughter to just focus on the size and orientation of the hands.  I first explained that the hour hand is short and the minute hand is long.  Then I demonstrated how to move the hour and minute hands.

You can have your child move the clock to match an analog or digital clock in your house!

Goal 4: Teach kids time by mastering skip counting by 5s

Next, I taught her how to skip count by 5s by recognizing the pattern on the hundred chart as well as the following activities:

If your child prefers other activities such as those that involve gross motor, you can adapt these outdoor activities to teach numbers!

Goal 5. Teach kids time with clocks that have no numbers

After your child has the clock numbers committed to memory, you can see if they remember the position of the numbers when presented with a numberless clock.  I created a simple pegging activity to match the numbers to the clock.  All you need are clothespins (pegs) and cardboard.  (Paint is optional). 

The activity allows for self-correction because there are 12 clothespins total.  One side of the clothespins has hour numbers while the other side has minutes.

Here’s a look at the backside of the clock.  As you can see, this is an interactive way to learn multiples of 5s and skip counting 5s!

Video of my daughter flipping over each of the clothespins.  In hindsight, I should have put “00” instead of “60” behind clothespin #12 so that it correlates with digital time.  However, my set up is helpful for reinforcing that 60 minutes equals one hour.

Another way to teach kids time is with pebbles to represent markers of time.  In the next photo, you can see that we arranged 12 pebbles around the clock.  We talked about how decorative clocks can have objects like pebbles to represent a unit of time.


Then we removed the cardboard clock and arranged 12 blue pebbles in a circle, naming each representative number.  I added the golden pebble to mark 12, 3, 6, and 9 since some clocks only include those points.  Also, it’s another way to suggest that an hour of time can be divided into quarters!

Non-numerical clocks can be pretty abstract for children, and therefore I have listed this idea last.


Book about the concept of time

We love the book 明天什么时候来?(When is Tomorrow?) by 梁崴 & 朱孟媛 (ISBN: 9787535367129).

A little boy is so excited about getting a new dog that he can hardly sleep.  He keeps wondering if it’s 明天, but it’s still 今天.   The boy ends up staying up most of the night and falls asleep on the floor!  The next morning, he sleeps late but is awoken by his new puppy!  The end of the book has a few pages that reviews the story sequence.

I highly recommend this adorable story!  You can buy the single book from China Sprout or the full 30-book set of math story books from Taobao.

Digital clock learning

We have not done activities for digital clocks.  Once kids can practice reading double digit numbers, such as with a printable hundred chart), they usually can figure how to read a digital clock.

Has your child learned how to tell time?

Do you have other favorite ways to teach kids time?  I’d love to hear your ideas!

Please leave a comment with your tips as well as any questions, and I’ll try my best to answer them!

How to teach kids calendar concepts

To learn about the calendar, please check out our FREE, interactive printable activities!  These are very helpful ways to learn about the days of the week, the concept of yesterday/today/tomorrow, and the months of the year!

Learning activities for every topic!

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