Learning to Tell Time the Unschooling Way

Most parents who are new to homeschooling, probably put in more hours than are necessary, making it more like school than it needs to be. Since my children have never been to school, this has made it easier to steer clear of unnecessary structure.  I have just continued with the sort of life we led when the kids were younger. I provide them with fun books, toys, art and craft materials, computer games, etc., and let them at them and help them pursue areas of interest.

My daughter Erin (aged 5) recently asked for help learning to tell time. No one was telling her this was what she needed to know next, but she knew this was something she was ready for. I've always talked to her about time; if she asked me at age three "when can we go to the park" I'd say "in fifteen minutes, when the big hand on the clock is pointing here", rather than "once I'm done this, in a few minutes". So she saw clocks being used in her world. When she wanted to learn herself, she had some conceptual framework to put it into, and she already knew how it would help her in her day-to-day existence.

Erin had become fascinated with a classical music/story tape we were loaned called "Maestro Orpheus and the World Clock", a fantasy story about the grandson of a clockmaker. It integrates music, time and memory in a poetic way, and Erin had been playing the tape several times a day. She then dredged up the works from a broken clock, begged a battery and carried her "pet Clockie" around with her, telling stories about it, talking to it, watching the second-hand and minute-hand move.

At my suggestion, we made a “learning clock” together from the workings of an old clock.  We made a cardboard face, drawing out the numbers, measuring angles, using a compass and protractor and so on (I did this part, but she watched, and I explained what I was doing). Once it was made, she was able to move the hands around and ask me "what time is this?" and "is this 4:30?". We found a shareware time-telling game on the internet and downloaded that. She spent about 45 minutes total on it, on her own. After two days Erin was able to tell time.

I don't know how long it takes most teachers in public school to "teach" time-telling, but I bet it's a lot more than the 25 minutes I spent with Erin making our learning clock and answering a few quick questions. Probably weeks of sequential learning tasks: counting by fives, recognizing quarter-circles and half-circles, drawing clock faces, drawing in hands of clocks on worksheets. What made our approach so quick and enjoyable was that I waited until Erin wanted to do it herself.  She chose to learn this quite early, but if she'd not been interested until she turned eight, I would have done my best to wait patiently.


Miranda Hughes is a homeschooling mom of three "preschoolers" in the British Columbia Interior town of New Denver.  She also works part-time as a physician and as a Suzuki violin teacher and does a little freelance writing.

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Topics: Personal Stories, Unschooling