About time

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By Christina Bakerwriter and educational journalist

Explore one of the greatest, most fascinating influences on life on Earth.

It flies when we’re having fun. It heals all wounds. It waits for no man. Time is the true ruler over our existence. But what is it? A second? A millennium? Our concept of time is necessarily linked with the way we measure it. Ancient civilisations relied on natural measures of time – the rising and setting of the Sun dividing day from night, the phases of the lunar cycle, the recurring seasons and the changing patterns of the stars. As time passed, humans began to develop more and more sophisticated and precise time-keeping devices.

The accuracy of a timepiece is determined by how much time it loses over a period, in relation to the Earth’s rotation. The ‘Essential facts’ (see box) looks at the development of time keepers from sundials, through to modern day atomic clocks.

Time for learning

As a topic, ‘time’ lends itself to a wide range of fascinating cross-curricular learning. Most children will be aware that there are 60 seconds in a minute or be able to convert an analogue clock to digital, but few will have stopped to really consider the concept of time, how it affects almost all aspects of our lives and how humans arrived at the measurements we take for granted today.

Introduction: Ask the children what they would do if they wanted to know the time? What if there were no clocks or watches? How else could they tell the time? Why is it important to know the correct time? As a class, read through the first of the ‘Time’ activity sheets ‘Natural time keepers’ and complete the activities in order to demonstrate how we get day and night and the seasons. The following tasks can be spread over several lessons.

Seasons: Discuss with the children about the seasons and the order in which they occur. What colours, moods or events do the children associate each time of year with? You could also play extracts from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, asking the children to compare the pieces and comment on how well they represent each season. Divide the class into four groups and allocate each group one of the seasons. The groups are to engage in a range of tasks, using their season as inspiration. The tasks could include:

  • writing a story or poem based around the season
  • devising a dance
  • selecting instruments and composing a piece of music
  • researching facts about events that occur during their season (changes in the natural world, what people or animals do)
  • creating a collage or painting reflecting the colours and mood of their season. If you’re feeling ambitious, you could even transform the four corners of the classroom into a four seasons display.
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