Montessori Elementary Homeschool Blog - with documentation of our infant Montessori, toddler Montessori, and primary Montessori experiences; as well as preparation for the upcoming adolescent Montessori homeschool years.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Telling Time - Reading Clocks - Montessori Style

Telling time is one area of Montessori that throws me. And going to both AMI primary and AMI elementary training didn't really help rid of me of my annoyance in this area! ;)

In primary, we were told it was elementary work - talk about time in general; talk about the clock; have a calendar; etc. but no formal presentation and I don't think clock-work is mentioned anywhere in my AMI primary albums at all. It's elementary work right?

Well, I get on to elementary and while they have a presentation for the parts of the clock and a tiny bit more, we were told to presume that primary children had already had this work!


Anyhow, I am happy to share all of my work with YOU all. I developed this work based on experiments and observation with my tutoring children and my own son. What I have here is suitable for children who can recognize numbers. I do not claim this is the perfect and the only way to teach time; I am only saying it worked for us. There are SO MANY great and wonderful activities available for various ages - what I find is that some are more "key" than others - so I present the keys, and let the children show me where they want to go with it. I know they have the foundation and the framework and the tools to do their own decorating ;)
(vanitas - a fundamental human need and a human tendency towards perfecting oneself and one's environment by personalizing it).

12/15/2014: UPDATE: I have been told by many that this is too simplistic - not enough "work" here for the children. I counter with "Is it not enough work for the child - or is it not enough work for YOU?" We want to focus on the keys - so the children have time/space to explore AND have something to discover. Most children don't need every single step outlined for them - if they do and they are typically developing children, then they have been accustomed to having everything handed to them, with little room for personal thoughts of their own. I don't say that to judge or be cruel, but to point out a reality: that children take advantage of their human tendency for exploration when they are given the opportunity - and if they no longer have this tendency EVER, something happened TO them. To not have an interest in a particular subject, that is fine and normal - if it is truly a key experience, they will come back to it.

Thus we focus on the KEYS to exploration and discovery; providing real life key experiences, then the follow-ups either happen or we introduce them in bits later. Do everything with time all at once, the child will later say, "Oh I've learned all about that topic, I am done now." rather than coming back to it again and again and again as we actually want them to do.

Concerned about doing math with clocks? The elementary mathematics album includes work with non-decimal bases so the math is easily done there; also the history album and geometry album get into circles, degrees, history of Babylon, clocks, etc.
(note: that non-decimal base presentation? has no materials - at least no new materials (it uses the decanomial bead bars and the bead cabinet squares and cubes --- and a VERY easily hand-drawn chart)

(end update)

We start with this clock:
Open/Close doors for the digital time
Digital time corresponds to the analog time
Analog hands actually coordinate with one another
ANGST 1: it only counts by 5s in the digital
ANGST 2: it is a 24 hour clock (13:00 for 1:00 PM)
Neither angst are deal-breakers
1) the children get the main concept here
and apply the details elsewhere
2) perfect way to teach that the day is 24 hours -
which is a PM and AM elementary presentation anyway!

Another bonus about that clock? The hour hand coordinates with the hour numbers in color; the minute hand with the minute, which brings me to my first MAIN KEY:
  • I tell the children, "The hour is shorter and reaches for the big number that is closer; the minute hand is longer and stretching BEHIND those big numbers to the little numbers in the back - THAT is where we get the numbers for each hand."
  • Without this piece, the rest doesn't make any sense or doesn't really matter; they really need to know to which numbers each hand is pointing. So don't move on until they get that concept. 
Now, it is ideal if a child can count by 5 when they start this work, so they have an easier grasp of things, however the fact is that time moves in minutes of 1, not in 5s. We do NOT get those groups of five FROM the big numbers! Those big numbers indicate the hours! They just happen to share the same arrow direction with the 5 minute marks! ;)
(1/14/12: Yes, it is neat to see those bead bars of 5 - and it helps count up by 5 faster; it's one of those keys that if it works for you, do it! If not, it's ok too! I have had children totally boggled by the use of the bead bar there because then they think it can never be 7:23 for example; most children understand it just fine without the beads!)

then I added this material - it was a bust.
The hands don't coordinate, so it is NOT a worthwhile investment
of time OR money, unless you have 6-9 year olds who are copying
the big yellow clock shown above.
I could see it being a useful tool for some children,
as an intermediary between this and writing their own clocks.
I personally wouldn't purchase it again. 

These cards are incremented in 15 minutes.
Buy two sets - cut out the clock faces from one set
and mount on white index cards (getting rid of the color). 

The backs of the card show the digital time
and the time in written words. VERY handy!
the children match the digital time to the clock face
then turn it over to see if they were right!
And the color coordination is only noticed when checking,
therefore it is not a crutch.
These could be cut into 2 pieces - digital and language.

In the back you see the paper clock I created
(the hands are not shown here for some reason)
the children used this to move the hands around.
It didn't work so hot.
I replaced it with a blank paper clock face onto which
the children added numbers, lines and arrows.

 I created 3-part cards for all the 5 minutes  and
a selection of the minutes (like 7:23) and
presented them in varying stages (not all at once).
Just printed clock faces on paper and marked
them all out by hand.
I WILL NEVER do that again!
It was far too tedious.
Either do it on the computer, or find a download! 

I later added in this stamp - better than printing!
This thing is SO MULTI-PURPOSE!
And the children can write their own times, copying
from the plastic clock above - or from a real clock!
Elementary children can use it in their work journals. 

All stored in a cute little basket! 

For the primary age, nothing more is really needed. There are plenty of great supplemental activities, such as a timeline of one's day, card matching and card grading games, and the like. But not every child likes or needs these.

For both ages (primary and elementary), be sure to include proper time-related terminology in your conversations and interactions. Don't be like me and tell your child that you'll be done in 5 minutes when you know it will be half an hour! ;) He'll start thinking that "Five minutes is a LONG time, Mama!"

And therein lies the second crucial key to telling time: USING it.

TIP: Start with analog and move to digital - it is easy to make the transition that direction; if you switch directions, you will have an uphill battle on your hands. Convinced we should only go digital? Then it will be that much harder to understand the historical telling of time and all those doors of discovery that are thereby opened, such as culture, number bases, astronomy, angle measurements ;) Sure, some of that is still present, but keeping the round clock-face is a huge sensorial foundation for this later work.

Elementary Work: 
The Story of Clocks and Calendars
This author has some great
books just perfect for the
elementary Montessori crowd!
  • Word problems with time
  • Exploring timelines, BC/AD, centuries, decades, millenia
  • Explore how different cultures and for different purposes tracked the passage of time. 
  • Many other resources listed here at Living Math
  • our favorite book that spurred a LOT of cosmic education interests? The Story of Clocks and Calendars: Marking a Millenium by Betsy Maestro
  • Encourage further exploration based on interests; but also provide rich quality materials within the environment. 


  1. You should try the Golf Tee Clock like the one I offer here I adapted it from a design in Montessori on a Limited Budget. I also have a Clockworks presentation summary at Hope4ME and the files are there to make your own clock too. The kids love the Golf Tee Clock!

    1. Aha! I remember making the golf tee clock :) I thought it was neat; I had two of my daycare kids all over it; the others were just 'eh' about it. I don't know why - wrong age and level of experience perhaps?? Of course, considering those children now, I bet those are the kids who are probably building their own detailed clock-works now at elementary age - they were just THAT type of child ;)

      The original design that all the modifications are based on is described in the AMI elementary history album, and even looking at it in training, I remember thinking, 'Nah, the golf tee version is way better!' ;)

      When we moved across a few states, it got packed away so long I forgot I had it; when I pulled it out again, we had missing pieces :( I'll have to see if I can resurrect it for my co-op children when I start up the co-op again. Thank you for reminding me!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing! I am doing this now with a large group of 4-5 year olds.

  3. In my training--which is AMS--clock work isn't categorized under math. We're supposed to teach it as part of history. It's a bit of a mindshift for me, but I wonder if that might have something to do with the confusion?

    1. Within the context of AMI is also considered History (according to my primary trainer), but since we don't have a history subject specifically at primary, it felt odd to hear when I was in elementary training "it should have been learned in primary." I suppose at primary, it could be considered under language experiences... but in the end, it wasn't in either of my trainings. VERY odd.