Tell The Time – Why Do Children Struggle ? Decoding the Clock

Telling time is a fundamental life skill, yet many children struggle with it. Discover why children often find it challenging to tell the time and learn how parents and educators can assist them in mastering this essential skill.

The Complexity of Time: The Challenge of Teaching Kids to Tell the Time

Understanding the complexity of time, particularly from a child’s perspective, is essential when exploring why children often struggle with this concept. Time, unlike many other things children encounter in their daily lives, is an abstract concept. It lacks the tangibility and sensory attributes of objects they can touch, see, or hear. This abstract nature of time is one of the primary factors that contribute to the challenges children face when trying to comprehend it.

The complexity of time is multifaceted:

  • Intangibility: Time is intangible; you can’t hold it or see it. It doesn’t have a physical form like a toy or a piece of fruit, making it inherently challenging for children to grasp. girl tell the time
  • Non-Linearity: Time is not linear in the same way a ruler or a string is. It doesn’t follow a simple, straight path from the past to the future. Instead, it’s a continuous and often cyclical phenomenon, with events happening simultaneously all around the world.
  • Subjectivity: Time is a subjective experience. How time feels can vary greatly based on what one is doing. For a child, an hour at the playground may feel like mere minutes, while an hour in a boring class can feel like an eternity. This subjectivity can lead to confusion and frustration when trying to measure time consistently.
  • Different Units: Time is divided into various units: seconds, minutes, hours, days, and so on. Understanding how these units relate to each other can be perplexing for a child. The concept of an hour containing 60 minutes or a minute having 60 seconds can be hard to grasp.
  • Relativity: Time is relative, which means it can feel shorter or longer depending on the context. A few minutes can seem endless when waiting for a favorite TV show, but those same minutes may fly by when engaged in an enjoyable activity.

To help children overcome their struggles with time-telling, it’s essential to employ teaching methods that cater to their developmental stage and gradually introduce them to the abstract nature of time in a way that’s engaging and comprehensible.

Cognitive Development and Time-Telling

Children’s ability to tell time is closely linked to their cognitive development. Younger children often struggle because their brains are still developing, and they may lack the mental capacity to handle time-related concepts.

Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is widely recognized in the field of child psychology. According to Piaget, children progress through four main stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. Each of these stages has implications for time-telling abilities.

  • Sensorimotor Stage (0-2 years): In this stage, infants and toddlers are primarily focused on sensory experiences and motor development. They are not yet capable of understanding abstract concepts like time. Their concept of time is limited to immediate experiences, such as “now” and “not now.”
  • Preoperational Stage (2-7 years): During this stage, children begin to use language and represent objects with words and images. However, their thinking is egocentric, and they often struggle with concepts that require logical operations. Time-telling at this stage may involve understanding basic sequences, like before and after, but grasping hours, minutes, and seconds can be challenging.Girl needs help with telling the time
  • Concrete Operational Stage (7-11 years): This is a critical period for time-telling development. Children in this stage can think logically and understand concepts like conservation and classification. They are better equipped to grasp the structure of time and learn to read both analog and digital clocks.
  • Formal Operational Stage (11+ years): In this final stage, adolescents and adults can think abstractly and hypothetically. They have a more sophisticated understanding of time and can manage complex time-related tasks, such as scheduling, time management, and understanding time zones.

Temporal Concepts

Cognitive development also impacts a child’s ability to understand temporal concepts such as past, present, and future. Young children may have difficulty distinguishing between these concepts, which can lead to confusion when learning to tell time.

Memory and Attention

Cognitive development influences memory and attention, both of which are crucial for time-telling. Young children may struggle to remember the sequences involved in reading a clock or may find it challenging to maintain attention on a task that requires tracking time.


Executive Functions

Executive functions, including working memory and cognitive flexibility, are essential for time-telling. These functions allow children to hold and manipulate time-related information. As cognitive development progresses, these functions become more developed, making time-telling easier.

Tell the time clock face


Understanding a child’s cognitive development stage is vital for tailoring time-telling education effectively. Younger children require simpler and more concrete time concepts, while older children can delve into more abstract notions of time. By considering cognitive development, parents and educators can provide age-appropriate guidance, patience, and support to help children overcome their struggles with time-telling and develop this important life skill.

Abstract Concepts vs. Concrete Learning

When it comes to teaching children to tell time, one critical aspect to consider is the distinction between abstract concepts and concrete learning. Time-telling involves a blend of both, and understanding this balance is key to helping children grasp the concept effectively.

Abstract concepts vs. concrete learning

Abstract Concepts:

  • Hours and Minutes: The divisions of time into hours, minutes, and seconds are abstract concepts. Children need to understand that an hour is made up of 60 minutes and that a minute contains 60 seconds. This abstraction can be challenging for young learners as they are still developing their sense of numbers and mathematical concepts.
  • Intangibility: Time, in its essence, is intangible. You can’t see or touch it, which sets it apart from concrete objects like toys or books. The abstract nature of time can be perplexing for children who are more accustomed to learning through sensory experiences.
  • Temporal Relationships: Learning to read a clock involves understanding temporal relationships. For instance, knowing that the big hand (the minute hand) needs to complete a full rotation around the clock face for an hour to pass. These relationships are complex and abstract.
  • A.M. and P.M.: The concept of a.m. and p.m. can be especially challenging. Children need to grasp the abstract idea that a new day begins at midnight and that hours continue to tick away beyond 12. They also need to understand the societal conventions of using “a.m.” and “p.m.”

Concrete Learning:

  • Analog Clocks: Analog clocks with hands and numbers provide a more concrete representation of time. Children can see the passage of time as the clock’s hands move. However, understanding the correspondence between these movements and specific time values is an abstract skill that requires practice.Analog clock face
  • Daily Routines: Children can learn about time through concrete daily routines. For example, breakfast is at 7 a.m., school starts at 8 a.m., and bedtime is at 8 p.m. These routines provide tangible associations between time and activities.
  • Visual Aids: Using visual aids like charts, diagrams, or interactive apps can help make abstract time concepts more concrete. Children can see time depicted visually, which aids in their understanding.
  • Practice with Real Clocks: Hands-on practice with real clocks is crucial. Children can learn to associate the position of the clock’s hands with specific times through tangible interaction.
  • Real-World Examples: Pointing out real-world examples of time, such as the movement of the sun across the sky or the changing of seasons, can make time more concrete and relatable for children.

Balancing abstract concepts with concrete learning is essential when teaching children to tell time. Starting with the basics, like learning the numbers on the clock and understanding the hands’ movement, provides a concrete foundation. As children become more comfortable with these aspects, they can gradually delve into the abstract concepts, such as the relationship between hours and minutes. It’s a process that requires patience and adaptability to cater to the child’s individual pace and learning style, ultimately enabling them to master the skill of time-telling.

Analog vs. Digital Clocks

Teaching children to tell time often involves choosing between analog and digital clocks. Each type of clock has its unique characteristics and advantages, and the choice depends on the child’s age, cognitive development, and individual learning preferences.

Analog Clocks:

  • Visual Representation: Analog clocks have a traditional circular design with two or three hands, making them a visual representation of time’s passage. The movement of the hands around the clock face illustrates the passing of minutes and hours.
  • Conceptual Learning: Analog clocks offer an opportunity for children to develop a deeper conceptual understanding of time. They can see the relationship between the positions of the hands and the specific time values.
  • Minute and Hour Hands: Analog clocks have both a minute hand and an hour hand. This feature helps children distinguish between minutes and hours, an important aspect of time-telling.

Analog clocks can be more challenging for younger children who are just beginning to learn about time. The intricacies of interpreting the positions of the hands may be overwhelming for some.

Analog clock  vs Digital Clock

Digital Clocks:

  • Numerical Display: Digital clocks display time numerically, which can be easier for children to read. The time is presented in a straightforward manner, with numbers representing hours and minutes.
  • Immediate Comprehension: Digital clocks offer immediate comprehension of the time without the need to interpret the positions of hands. This simplicity can be particularly beneficial for younger children.
  • Digital Interfaces: In today’s digital age, children are often exposed to digital interfaces through smartphones, tablets, and other devices. This familiarity with digital displays can make digital clocks more relatable.

Many educators and parents opt to introduce digital clocks first and then transition to analog clocks as children grow and become more comfortable with time-telling.

Building Time-Telling Skills

Building time-telling skills is a gradual process. Starting with the basics and gradually progressing to more complex concepts allows children to develop a strong foundation.

Here are some strategies to help children build these crucial skills:

1.Start with the Basics

Begin by teaching children the fundamentals of time, such as the concept of hours, minutes, and seconds. Use simple language and concrete examples to explain these concepts. For instance, explain that an hour has 60 minutes, and a minute has 60 seconds.

2.Use Visual Aids

Visual aids, such as clocks with both analog and digital displays, can be invaluable. Visual representations of time help children associate numbers with the positions of clock hands, fostering a better understanding of time.

3.Relate Time to Daily Activities

Incorporate time-telling into daily routines. For example, discuss what time they wake up, eat meals, go to school, and go to bed. Associating time with their everyday activities makes the concept more relatable.

4.Interactive Learning

Engage children in interactive learning activities. Encourage them to set the time on clocks, both digital and analog. You can create fun challenges like “Can you set the clock to 3:15?” to make learning enjoyable.

5.Teach Hour and Minute Hands Separately

To avoid overwhelming young learners, start by teaching them to read the hour hand and then the minute hand. Once they understand each separately, combine them to determine the current time.

6.Daily Schedules

Establish daily schedules and routines that involve time. Children can follow a visual schedule that shows the time for different activities. This helps them anticipate and understand the concept of time.

tell the time - daily schedules


7.Storytelling and Narratives

Create stories or narratives that involve time. For instance, you can tell a story about a character who wakes up at a specific time, has breakfast, goes to school, and so on. This narrative approach helps children relate to time as a sequence of events.

8.Practice with Timers

Use timers for short activities or tasks. Ask children to estimate how long an activity will take and then set the timer to see if their estimate is correct. This hands-on experience helps them develop a sense of time.

9.Real-Life Applications

Take children on outings and point out real-life applications of time, such as train schedules, bus timetables, and the clock in public places. These experiences help reinforce the relevance of time in their daily lives.

10.Consistent Reinforcement

Consistency is key to building time-telling skills. Regularly engage with your child on the topic of time, ask questions, and provide opportunities for them to practice and refine their time-telling abilities.

11.Be Patient and Encouraging

Learning to tell time is a gradual process, and children may make mistakes along the way. Offer positive reinforcement and celebrate their progress to keep them motivated.

12.Learning Through Play

Incorporate games an d playful activities that involve time-telling. Board games, puzzles, and online time-telling games can be both fun and educational.

Red Flags for Learning Disabilities

In some cases, ongoing struggles with time-telling could be indicative of learning disabilities. It’s vital to watch for red flags and seek professional guidance when necessary.tell the time learning difficulties

While it’s common for children to face challenges when learning to tell time, there are situations where persistent difficulties may be indicative of a learning disability. It’s crucial for parents and educators to be aware of red flags that suggest a child may be struggling with a clock learning disability, which could be associated with a broader learning disorder.

While difficulties in time-telling are typically not directly associated with specific illnesses, they can be symptomatic of underlying conditions or developmental challenges. It’s essential to differentiate between a child’s struggles with time-telling and medical illnesses.

Learning Disabilities 

Learning disabilities such as dyscalculia, which affects mathematical skills, can indirectly impact time-telling abilities. Children with dyscalculia may find it challenging to grasp numerical concepts and sequences, including those related to time.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Children with ADHD may have difficulty focusing on tasks that require sustained attention, such as learning to tell time. While this is not an illness, it is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can affect a child’s learning experience.

Autism Spectrum Disorders

Some children on the autism spectrum may struggle with abstract concepts, including time. They may require alternative teaching methods tailored to their specific needs.

Anxiety and Stress

Chronic stress or anxiety can affect a child’s ability to focus and learn. If a child is experiencing excessive stress due to various factors, it might indirectly impact their capacity to grasp time-telling.

Vision Impairments

Children with vision impairments may have difficulty reading analog clocks, as they rely on visual cues to determine the position of the clock hands.

Developmental Delays

Delays in cognitive or fine motor skill development can impact a child’s ability to tell time. Some developmental delays may be associated with medical conditions or prematurity.

When children exhibit persistent difficulties in this area, it’s advisable to seek evaluation and support from educators, specialists, and healthcare professionals who can provide targeted interventions to help them overcome these difficulties.

Time is an abstract concept, making it challenging for young minds to grasp.It’s not unusual for them to struggle due to the abstract nature of time, cognitive development, and learning methods. Parents play a crucial role in helping children understand time. Consistent reinforcement at home and using daily routines as teaching opportunities can make a significant difference. With patience, guidance, and the right educational approach, children can overcome these challenges and develop time-telling proficiency.

Remember that every child learns at their own pace, and what works for one may not work for another. Adapt your teaching approach to your child’s individual needs and preferences. By following these strategies and being actively involved in your child’s time-telling education, you can help them develop this essential life skill with confidence and competence.


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