Friday's child

5th February 1999 at 00:00
Victoria Neumark on what it's like to be . . . learning to tell the time

Now that Lucy is six she can begin to tell the time. But, she wants to know, what is the time?

You get up in the morning; it is still dark, but it is daytime. After breakfast, you go to school, and you should be there on time. After lesson time, there is break time, which is followed by apple time. Then dinner time, followed by playtime followed by more lesson and a short playtime. Then, home time. At home, perhaps TV watching before tea time. Maybe someone will say "That's enough time watching that box, off you go and play." A returning parent may be pressed into quality time over bath time. Story time, bed time, no time, too much time, time we saw your grandma, happy time, time getting short, no time like the present...

For teachers, one of the difficulties of teaching time is lexical. Adults use the word "time" to mean opportunity, occasion, appointment, memory, measurement. From our point of view, these are logical meanings to derive from our division of the cycle of the turning Earth. From a child's point of view, learning the conventions governing the hands of a clock or the sums needed to use a digital display has no necessary connection to the pattern of everyday life.

OK, there are these hours, minutes, seconds, but so what? Lucy's Minnie Mouse watch, of which she has to turn the hands herself, is just as good as a Rolex to her. Better. It can be controlled so easily, see?

Lucy can learn the measurement, but what has that got to do with time to get up, quick we'll be late, we're just in time? The poet John Donne has a lovely phrase about "hours, days, months, that are the rags of time" suggesting just Lucy's puzzlement. Here on the one hand are the fixed points: school at 8.50am (but we call it "ten to nine"), home at 3.15pm ("a quarter past three") bed at 7.30 ("half seven"). And on the other, the much more real experience, that misery lasts an eternity while you cry in the playground with a grazed knee, that the golden moment when you held the new hamster in your hands for the first time fills the universe and bursts in a flash, that no one ever had to wait for their birthday as long as you, and that the summer holidays are vanished.

Unlike simpler societies, where life is regulated by sun and weather, we need our citizens to manage their timekeeping. So children have to master telling the time.

Lucy asked, "How can you tell the time when it is all so different?" Her teacher satisfied her. "Time is like a tape measure. But it never goes round the same moments twice."

Lucy went home and threw away the Minnie Mouse watch. "It's not a real one," she pointed out. Her older sister retrieved it. "It'll do for Barbie. She doesn't need time."

Lucy cried. "I don't need time, either," she sniffed. "But I've got to have it." Older sister was unmoved. "Time you grew up."

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