clock for teaching time

How to tell the time without a clock

Is your child struggling to contextualise the passage of time on a clock? Understanding this concept can be tricky for young children – particularly if they are unable to see the process’ relevance in the wider world. So, if you are looking for ways to help them grasp this concept and enjoy a fun activity together this summer, learning how to tell the time without a clock is a great way to teach your child about time.

Using the sun’s position

First up: using the sun’s position to work out what time it is. As we all know, the movement of the sun across the sky is actually caused by the movement of the Earth as we orbit the sun, and this daily orbit gives us a good idea of the time at different points in the day.

To get started, take your little one outside in the morning, whilst the sun is still rising in the East. Once they have found the suns’ place in the sky, explain to them that the sun will always be visible in the East before midday, and that if they’re ever stuck without a clock, then they will be able to estimate the time of day by finding the sun’s place in the sky.

At midday, take them outside once again and explain to them that the sun will always be directly overhead at midday, and then finally take them outside again as the sun sets in the West. To conclude the day, explain how, thanks to the rotation and orbit of the Earth, the sun has followed a consistent journey across the sky, and that we are able to estimate what time it is by tracking its movement at different times of the day. This hands-on method helps children to better understand how time follows a consistent pattern and its connection to the Earth’s movements, giving them a tangible representation of time that they will always be able to refer back to.

Making a sundial

Once your child has developed a basic understanding of the sun’s relevance in time-telling activities, you can begin to build upon this understanding by making a sundial. Summertime is the best time to create a sundial as you will have more hours of sunlight to work with, so before your little one wakes up, head out to the garden and find a sunny spot to place a stick upright in the ground. This stick will function as a time telling device, as its shadow length and position will change as the sun’s position changes, making it a great demonstration for any curious child wondering how to tell the time without a clock.

When your child joins you in the garden to begin the activity, mark where the sticks’ first shadow falls with a stone or some colourful chalk. Then make sure that you return to mark the new shadows position at regular intervals throughout the day to create your child’s very own sundial, and make sure that you emphasise to your child that the passage of time is being clearly demonstrated by these markers.

Tracking the North Star

Tracking the North Star is a fascinating way for parents and children of all ages to explore the passage of time by working together to chart the celestial movements. Whilst this concept may seem too challenging for younger children, it follows a similar method to the sundial activity – only this time, we can clearly see that we are the moving object in the night sky.

Start by locating the North Star, also known as Polaris, in the night sky on a warm, clear evening. The North Star is a bright star that remains nearly fixed in the same spot in the night sky whilst the other stars appear to rotate around it due to Earth’s rotation. Point its position out to your child and take a few minutes every hour or so over the next few hours to relocate the star and observe how the surrounding stars appear to change position as the Earth continues to rotate.

Don’t forget to remind your little one that this apparent movement reflects the Earth’s rotation and the passing hours, rather than the movement of the stars, as younger children can become confused if this is not routinely explained to them. Through these observations, children will be able to clearly see the steady, predictable patterns of the night sky and develop their awareness of times’ broader context, as even the stars follow the rules of time every night.

Moon phases

There are two particular ways to use the moon to track the time, and one is best completed over the course of several weeks. However, the less time-consuming activity can be done by tracking the moon’s course over a single night, so if you are planning to do this, start off by noting the time at sunset. If the moon is already visible during this time, then make sure your child clearly notes the moon’s position in the sky as the sun sets.

Over the course of the night the moon will appear to move across the sky as both the Earth and the moon rotate, so regroup once an hour until bedtime to observe the moons’ new position at different times. By comparing the moon’s position to the time of sunset, you can calculate an approximate time based on its position earlier on in the evening.

If you are looking to track the position of the moon across a longer period of time, then engaging your little one in a charting activity is a great way to keep them engaged over the holidays. Begin by observing the moon every night and noting its shape and position, and keep a moon journal to record the moon’s shape each night by shading in the shape. Explain to your child how the moon’s appearance changes due to its orbit around Earth and the varying angles of sunlight hitting its surface to help them grasp longer time periods beyond the daily cycle. Over the course of approximately 29.5 days, the moon goes through its phases: new moon, first quarter, full moon, and last quarter, and by tracking the moon’s phases children are able to see a clear, repetitive system that spans weeks and months.

How to tell the time without a clock

Whilst all of these activities are great opportunities to deepen your little ones’ understanding, it is also clear that the easiest way to tell the time is with an EasyRead clock or watch! As we enjoy watching the movement of the moon, stars, and our own planet through the skies, let’s take a minute to be grateful that our daily routines no longer require us to know how to tell the time without a clock – and that we instead have access to all the time-telling resources that we need.