It’s that time of year again when we move the clocks back and everyone gets an extra hour in bed! Forget the fact that we are only reclaiming the hour we’ lost’ in March, when we willingly put the clocks forward, and all is well – we pull the duvet snuggly over our heads and have a well-deserved lie-in!
But have you ever thought about why we meddle with time? Who started it and when? And how can we possibly explain it all to our children?
Einstein’s theory of relativity states that time is not as constant as our everyday experiences would have us believe, but when it comes to catching the bus for work, there’s no point in theorising about travelling close to the speed of light – if you get to the bus stop late, you miss the bus!
Learning to tell the time is incredibly important, as is understanding the concepts of past, present and future. It allows us to operate within common boundaries, to agree on the duration of events, and to organise ourselves around an agreed, time framework. It is also important for children to understand the organisation of the world, the natural life cycles that surround them, and the constant ebb and flow of their own lives.
Historically, we defined time by analysing the movement of the planets: it takes a year for the earth to orbit the sun and a day for the world to revolve on its axis. Since ancient Egyptian times, we have sub-divided days into 24 hours and we can thank the ancient Babylonians for sub-dividing hours into minutes and seconds, since they preferred counting in 60s!
Keeping and telling the time
The way we keep time has changed over the centuries – from stone circles, sundials, hourglasses and candles, to analogue and digital clocks, but even these are prone to inaccuracy. Nowadays, we no longer use astronomy as our reference, but atomic time defined by the vibration of atoms.
So how can we help our children understand time? Below are some tips and suggestions:
Start with the general concept of time
Most pre-school children are still learning to count, so tackling a clock face can be daunting. However, they will understand the idea that they do things at different points in the day – such as getting up in the morning; eating lunch at midday; having a nap after lunch; and then going to bed at night.
Help children by using visuals and charts to show these different times and activities and add clocks showing an appropriate time. Reinforce this by using time-defining vocabulary such as ‘morning’, ‘midday’, ‘evening’, ‘day’ and ‘night’, telling the children that: “In the morning, we get up and have breakfast” or “at night, we clean our teeth and go to bed.”
It’s also important to introduce the concept of things happening chronologically, or in a time order, by explaining that they do things in the present – i.e. ‘now’, but they will do something else ‘afterwards’ or ‘later’. This helps them understand the concept of time being split into different sections.
You can also talk about cyclical events such as seasons, birthdays, Christmas or other religious festivals to help them understand days, months and years. Talking to them about what they did on their last birthday, or what they want to do on their next birthday, gives them the idea that these things will come around again, in time.
Practice counting to 12, to 60, and in 5s
Children need to be able to recognise numbers to tell the time, so practice counting and general number recognition. Use different strategies to help children learn their numbers. Children will often learn to count by rote before they can recognise numbers, so help them by holding up a number card, and asking them to give you back the same number of counters that you have written on the card. For example, hold up the number ‘3’ and ask them to count out 3 counters.
Other ways to help include:
Counting regularly throughout the day
Sing number songs and nursery rhymes that include numbers, such as “Ten green bottles” or “The animals went in two-by-two”. There are some suitable counting songs at: bbc.co.uk/programmes/p065s47t
Use blocks with numbers and count using an abacus
Read number books together
Use a toy clock to practice saying the hour
It is generally expected that by the age of 5 or 6, children will be able to recognise time by hours and half-hours. At nursery school, it would be helpful to explain the concept of hours on the clock as a stepping-stone towards this goal. Explain what the 2 different hands on the clock mean, but then focus on the little hand which points to the hour. Use a toy clock to set the time to different hours (keeping the big hand on 12) and ask the children to tell you what time it is. There are many songs available to help you. Here are some of our favourite online ones:
British Summer Time
Benjamin Franklin is credited with first proposing the idea of changing the clocks when he visited Paris in 1784 and later, a builder called William Willett (great-great-grandfather of Coldplay singer, Chris Martin), campaigned on the subject. He was a keen golfer and was annoyed when it got too dark for him to play. The idea was discussed by the government in 1908, but wasn’t put into practice until 1916, during the first World War when Germany did it first. In WW2, the clocks were changed by 2 hours for a short while, but this didn’t last long. Many countries still don’t do it at all and there are moves within the European Parliament to end it altogether, but this is unlikely to happen until 2021 at the earliest. So, for now, in the UK, the clocks go forward an hour on the last Sunday in March, and back on the last Sunday in October. Enjoy your lie-in!