Teaching Time without Telling with Big Mama Cat

Over the summer, Liam needed to complete a math worksheet packet.   There were quite a few problems on telling time. He became frustrated when he reached these time problems and refused to continue on in the packet until he could answer them. To help him attempt the problems, I began asking him some questions,  but he replied with an uncooperative “I already know all that. Just tell me how to do it.”

I needed a way to help him make sense of telling time without subjecting him to a step-to-step lecture on the ins-and-outs of analog clocks. After researching which time-focused picture books elementary teachers use in their classrooms, I headed to the library. This post is about our favorite telling time book and some clock cards I created to talk time with Liam.

The Book

Telling Time with Big Mama Cat was written by Dan Harper and published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers in 1998.


Big Mama Cat narrates the book telling us about her “busy” day. Her meals, her naps, and her guard duties.  Here is a video of a read-aloud of the book.

The father-daughter illustrator team of Barry Moser and Cara Moser created page after page of beautiful, realistic, high-quality watercolor scenes depicting the events of Mama Cat’s day. An analog clock face appears on each page with a matching time mentioned in the text. A die-cut interactive clock face with moveable plastic hands is incorporated into the cover for children to follow along and represent the times in the book.

Telling Time with Big Mama Cat is recommended for preschool to 3rd grade.

The Math

If you’re in a state/school that follows the Common Core mathematics standards, there are three elementary content standards which talk about telling time.

CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.1.MD.B.3 Tell and write time in hours and half-hours using analog and digital clocks. [1st grade]

CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.2.MD.C.7 Tell and write time from analog and digital clocks to the nearest five minutes, using a.m. and p.m. [2nd grade]

CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.3.MD.A.1 Tell and write time to the nearest minute and measure time intervals in minutes. Solve word problems involving addition and subtraction of time intervals in minutes, e.g., by representing the problem on a number line diagram.  [3rd grade]

Many of the time-telling books we read only had times on the hour (e.g., 9:00, 10:00).  What I like about Telling time with Big Mama Cat was the variety of times mentioned: 6:00am, 7:00, 8:00, 9:00, 10:00, 10:30, 10:45, 11:00, 11:05, 12:00, 1:00, 2:00, 2:15, 3:05, 3:00, 6:00, 7:00, 8:00, 9:00, 10:00 11:00, 12:00pm.  Also, the gaps between the times vary as well  (e.g., there is a gap of 3 hours from 3:00 to 6:00).

Learning analog time is difficult, especially in the digital world we live in. Some argue whether it is even something that should be taught in school (see here). I like the way, Josh Lund, an Instructional Technology Consultant at DePaul University, explains in this article and related podcast  the importance of teaching and learning the “old-fashioned way (e.g., telling time with analog clocks) even when there are so many easy ways around to do it faster, cheaper, and with less human involvement.” Lund explains:

[M]ore and more students are coming out of K-12 and college with a set of skills that are predominantly plug-and-play; that is, they have the ability to solve a problem using a tool, but they don’t have the know-how to tell you what procedure they are following, or even why they are following the steps in that order. Instead, they know a procedure that says, “If I do thing A with tool X, I will get answer B. There’s no intuition in this; the cognitive process has been removed altogether and replaced with an instruction manual of sorts.

There is a missed opportunity for mathematical thinking if we ignore the cognitive processes involved in reading analog clocks (which by the way are still on walls and wrists all around us) and/or tell students the rules of the clock expecting them only to memorize. Aside: And as an added bonus,  those that can read analog clocks are one step closer to being able to read cool math clocks like my beloved office clock shown below!


The Magic

Liam said that he liked the book, but he wasn’t sure it belonged on the blog because “Cats can’t actually tell time.”  While many beginning first graders believe cats can talk, my second grader no longer believes this. Sigh. My little boy is growing up. But I digress.  Aside from whether cats can talk, I do think this book is magical. Here’s a bit about how this book inspired discussions with my children about how analog clocks work.

First off, the die cut clock on the front cover is perfect practice for representing different times! I know that there is “an app for that” in fact I like this one in particular because:

  • It’s free;
  • It will show the actual “real time” or you can move the hands of the clock to whatever time you want;
  • It offers connected digital and analog time displays; and
  • There are other functions (e.g., angles, fractions) that can be explored as they relate time.

However, I love how with this book we didn’t need to break out the iPad (which inevitably is a distraction anyway as my children always have better ideas of how to use it). As we read through Mama Cat’s day, Siena enjoyed moving the clock hands of the interactive clock to match the times pictured in the clock illustrations. While Liam moved the clock hands to match the times mentioned in the text first and then checked his clock time with the illustrations.

While we read the book, it was clear that Liam still needed some practice with representing times with the clock.  For example, he would sometimes mix up the hour and minute hand. So I created some clock cards (see below for an example) . Each card has an analog clock face, a digital clock and a line for writing the time out in words. My thought process in creating the cards was to have three representations on each card because I wanted him to make connections between the words, the digital and analog representations. I also wanted to repeat many of the times in the book for this first set.


Screen Shot 2017-08-27 at 2.25.06 PM

I gave him the stack of cards and asked him to sort the cards in anyway he wanted. [I don’t think this is a great prompt now, but this is how I started and it was fine to get him going.]

He started with three groups based on the hour (all the 12 o’clocks, all the 10 o’clocks and all the 6’clocks).


As he worked it was clear that he was only looking at the digital times to sort the times. He mentioned that I messed up because there were two 12:00s to which I replied, “Is there anything  different on the two cards?”

“Oh, I get it. This one is noon.” He replied and continued sorting.

When he was done with the sort. I asked him why he put the 12:00 in the first row at different ends. His reply was that one is in the middle of the day and one was in the middle of the night. [I actually created the cards thinking of having multiple representation of the SAME time, so this observation was a bit unexpected.]

After he made the three groups he said “or you could do this” and arranged them in order from morning times to evening times.


I realized as he was sorting them, I made a mistake on the 6:45 card. I told him I made a mistake and wondered if he could find my mistake. He did: “Oh, the big hand should be between the six and seven not on the six.”

The Clock Card sort was a good way for me to get Liam talking about time after reading the book. And, these cards were a good way for me to begin thinking of ways I could encourage Liam to notice and wonder about how analog clocks work. I’ve included some blank copies of the clock cards in the menu bar in a section called Printables.  There is a word version and a pdf version each with four pagesThe first page of these document is blank versions of the clock cards shown above with all three representations on one card. You can draw in whatever times you want for your purposes. Note:  As I created the cards myself, it reminded me what goes into understanding how an analog clock face is read and how hard it is for the novice to learn this stuff! Thus, that was a magical moment for me as well. On the next three pages of the Clock Card Printables I separated each representation out (i.e., there is a page with just analog clocks, one with just digital and one blank for written time names). I plan to use these last three pages for a matching activity with Liam (e.g., I will have an analog clock showing 3:30, a digital clock showing 3:30 and the words three thirty on the blank card). I will give him all 27 cards filled in mixed up and he will match the times with the words.

Telling time with Big Mama cat and these cards helped me learn ways to talk about time with my children.  Learning is having new questions to ask.  Here are a few questions that this book and the clock card sort got me thinking about:

  • What’s the same about the hands of the clock at 4:15 and at 4:55? What’s different about the hands of the clock at these times?
  • What’s same about the hands of the clock at  4:15 and and 7:15? What’s different about the hands of the clock at these times?
  • Why are there repeated times?
  • When the minute hand is on the three, what time(s) will the digital clock display?
  • Describe how hands of the clock moving as the time changes from 11am to 12pm. Is there anything different about how the hour, minute, and second hand move? Is there anything that is the same?

I am looking forward to using this book (and the other tools mentioned above) to spend more time talking time and answering these questions with Liam and Siena in the coming months and years.

Have a magical math book you’d like share? Please go to the Shared booklist to find out how.  If you’d like to receive these magical math book posts each Monday, be sure to follow this blog in the side bar of this page.

Thanks and see you next Monday! #mathbookmagic







  1. Love this book and the resources, and explanations you provided. I think it will be extremely helpful to my families with supporting their first graders with learning how to tell time. I particularly love the reasons why it is important to continue to learn telling time with analog clocks as it connects to the mathematical concepts of time. Thank you!


    • Thanks for your comment! So glad to hear you found the post helpful. I had fun going back to it as it’s been awhile since I wrote it. Teaching time is tough, but the thing I love about it is that there’s so much for children to notice and wonder about. Good luck!


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