Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Telling time

“Have you noticed that no one wears a watch here? No clock is working correctly. When you invite someone to lunch, they might come at 10 a.m. or 6 p.m. We simply don’t care about the clock here.”
- Dr. Ilias Leriadis, physician on the Greek island of Ikaria, famous for its long-lived residents.

Children have different reasons for learning to tell time. Last summer, the four-year old twins who live down the street from us in Helsinki showed up at our door wearing little wrist watches. Children in the neighborhood wander around rather freely, and the twins' parents expected them back in time for dinner from the park, or a friend’s house. Our children played with them every day and asked for their own watches, which they got – and wore gleefully, but briefly. By the end of summer, when we returned to the US, they had forgotten to wear them.

My own childhood memory is dominated by the image of the wall clock at preschool. I watched it intently through half-closed eyes during nap time, counting the minutes to when we children were allowed to stop pretending we were asleep, and resume play. That memory reminds me now of the foreboding, implacable clock that reigned over Biehl's Academy in Peter Hoeg's Borderliners.

Last week in New York our group spent a couple of days discussing the polar vortex that was causing extremely cold weather there. We talked about the poles, the seasons, and the orbit of the Earth around the sun; which led to a demonstration of the phases of the moon. It, in turn, led to the circadian rhythm, which brought us back to the question of measuring the time of day.

The younger children look at the hour hand of the clock and can say “It is 5” or “It is half past 8”. The six-year olds can tell the minutes past the hour (“It is 10:42”) but struggle with negative expressions (“It is 18 minutes to 11”).

Should a five or six-year old be able to tell time accurately? Why not. But we haven't imposed it on our children. We place great emphasis on resisting the tyranny of calendars and clocks in our grown-up lives. The kids have been free to learn to read clocks in their own time – or not. Now was a good opportunity to work on it with them.

At first I thought I'd use our Judy Clock, since it is such a common school prop. But I wanted to make it real, and for that we needed an actual timepiece. Caterina dug up an old alarm clock that once belonged to her grandfather. It turned out perfect for the job. The children loved making the alarm ring at different times. We also set my hourglass and measured its accuracy; and talked about some of the ingenious ways people measured time using candles, water, and sand before spring-driven clocks were invented. (I want to return to the history of time measurement later with them, when I've read up more on it.)

We also did some worksheets. A caveat: now that we've spent a few months using workbooks, I've grown more aware of their real nature. They are crammed with repetitive, generic tasks and the quality of the exercises varies a great deal, even within the same brand of books. I have learned they are best used with surgical precision, not as a blanket prescription.

Instead of assigning sets of pages or entire units from the books, I've started making custom exercise packets. I use a photocopier to hand-pick individual or small groups of exercises from the workbooks that center on the specific concept the child is having a hard time understanding, or procedure she is struggling to master. The ones I picked from Kumon's Telling Time: Learning About Minutes helped the six-year olds get a firmer grasp of counting minutes. The younger kids don't really yet get a lot out of worksheets – their minds respond better to things they can touch and feel. But it's important they get to participate, so we give them some work too, but keep it really short.

Later this week we plan to try out an adaptation of telling time bingo to rehearse conversions between digital and analog display, and also talk about half & quarter-hours, a.m. & p.m., and maybe make sundials.

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