Telling Time to the Quarter Hour

by Laurie Laurendeau on May 8, 2012

Once your child has learned to tell time to the hour and half-hour, she will be prepared to tell time to the quarter hour.  This is typically a difficult step for most children to take, so be prepared to spend more time on it than you may have spent on teaching time to the hour and half-hour.

  • First, be sure your child understands the term “quarter”.  She probably knows the word from money, so that is a good place to start.  Draw a large circle on a piece of paper, and divide it into quarters.  Next, ask your child how many quarters it takes to make one whole dollar.  Take 4 quarters, and place one in each “quarter” piece in the circle.  Tell her that since it takes 4 quarters to make one dollar, that is why it has the name of a “quarter”.
  • Next, fill in numbers around the circle so it looks like a clock.  Ask her to color in the first quarter, beginning at the 12, going clockwise.  Point out that the 3 is at the other end of the quarter piece that she colored.  This is one quarter of the way around the clock.
  • Now take a play clock (or make a play clock using a paper plate, heavy cardstock for hands, and a metal brad as a fastener for the hands) and show the time 7 o’clock.  Now, move the minute hand until it reaches the 3.  Be sure she agrees that you went one quarter (some teachers will say one-fourth) of the way around the clock.  Tell her that it is now a “quarter after 3”, or a “quarter past 3”, since she went a quarter of the way around the clock.
  • Put the clock hands back to showing 3 o’clock.  Now move the minute hand one number at a time as you count by 5’s (counting the minutes) until you reach the 3.  You should stop at 15.  Tell your child that a quarter after the hour is the same thing as 15 minutes after the hour.  So, she can also say the time is “three fifteen”, which is written as 3:15 in digital time.
  • Move the hands on the play clock to show various quarter after times on the clock.
  • Now comes the really tricky part: a quarter to or a quarter til.  Children struggle with this for two reasons:  1. because of the position of the hour hand, and 2. because how you say the time (a quarter to or as digital time) determines which hour on the clock you need to concentrate on.
  • Let’s look at the position of the hour hand first. Because the hour hand is so far past the previous hour when the minute hand is pointing to the 9, it looks as though the hour hand is pointing to the next hour.  For example, if it is 3:45, the hour hand is getting really close to the 4, so children will often say it is 4:45 instead of 3:45.  Point out to your child that the hour hand is so close to the 4 because it’s getting ready to be 4 o’clock soon, but the last hour that the hour hand touched was the 3, so it’s 3 o’clock plus another 45 minutes, or 3:45.
  • You can say the time as “three forty-five”, or you can say it is a “quarter to/til 4”.  This is where the confusion deepens!  Go back to the clock that you drew on a piece of paper.  Show your child that the quarter piece from the 9 to the 12 is the last quarter around the circle, so when the minute hand is pointing to the 9, it is one quarter of the clock away from the next hour.  Be patient with this one… it will take time!


  • As always, playing math games at home is a great way to reinforce math skills learned in school.
  • Have questions or ideas about this story?
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