Tick Tock - Three Ways to Grow your Child's Sense of Time

3 January 2018

how preschool children develop concept of time

Young children are creatures of the here and now. That’s why they aren’t very good at waiting. Their short attention spans that are amazing to behold. You probably have seen your two-year-old go from deep concentration on a special toy to complete distraction in a matter of seconds. There is nothing like a two-year-old’s approach to life to encourage one’s living in the moment! Yet, as children 2 through 5 years of age grow up, they are able to expand their mental horizons from that of the here and now to include ideas of time, like the past and future.

As they develop these ideas, your preschooler needs lots of personal experiences with time-- like bath time and bedtime-- to help them develop an understanding of time concepts. Here are three, everyday things you can do to support your little one’s development of the sense of time:

  • Establish predictability and consistency in your daily routines. Even though toddlers can’t tell time, it is quite remarkable how they develop a sense of order through repeated routines. But it’s important to remain flexible while respecting the toddler’s need for routines. Don’t let the daily schedule be a rigid time clock. It can be changed to meet the evolving needs of growing toddlers as long as the sequence remains the same. For example, your two-year-old is moving to one long nap instead of two. As a result, he's tired earlier in the day. Lunch can be moved up so he can be sure to eat before he sleeps. This way, the events of the morning continue to follow the same sequence of play, snack, outdoors, and lunch. But each is slightly shortened. Two-year olds are not confused by this change, because their routine remains the same. Some additional things you can do to help establish this predictability are:
    • Talk about specific sequences of events to reinforce the concept of future. “We will go outdoors after our snack.” Or, “After your bath, we will read books together.”
    • Review the morning activities during lunch to reinforce the concept of past. “We played outside then we went inside. Now we are having our lunch.” Before and after are two time concepts that preschoolers ages 3- and 4-years-old can understand.
  • Make time-telling tools and words fun.  Although your preschooler cannot really read abstract, time-telling aids such as analog clocks and calendars until they are older, usually seven years and up, they are aware that these are tools that help measure how time passes. They see that you or another adult looks at a watch or a cell phone to see what time it is. Some four-year-olds begin to recognize that when both hands are straight up on the clock, it’s time for lunch. As preschoolers develop a sense of time, they're getting comfortable and knowledgeable using a wide variety of words for units of time in the past, present, and future. By age 4, your preschooler knows that she is 4-years old and she may proudly hold up four fingers to show you her age right now. Some things you can do to help reinforce this understanding of time-telling tools and words are:
    • Read books about time words. Share the classic book, Good Night Moon found here on Amazon to help your preschooler put closure on the day.
    • Keep an “Events Book.” Draw pictures or take photos of special happenings. Add sequential pages to the book or even an application like Instagram to form an interesting visual timeline to review and discuss. Talk about the pictured events using time words like, “This photo is from your birthday last month. Do you remember when Gramma came to your party last year?”
    • Make puppets who can talk with your preschooler about events in her life. Our Two-faced Puppets, Envelope Puppets and Juice Box Puppets are simple and fun to make for this purpose. And your child's pretend play and story-telling are entertaining ways to integrate ideas of how time passes.
  • Link time to events in your child's life. The words for yesterday, today, and tomorrow are only understandable when they are linked to a specific event or activity that makes the concept of time concrete for your little one. For example, “Yesterday we had Mary’s birthday party.” “Today we are making cookies.” “Tomorrow we visit Grandma.”  During this stage of time development, children are learning to understand more and more abstractions. They are in the process of defining time by recognizable events or symbols. Whether it is a memorable event like a party or trip, or a familiar pattern of the day, these events give 4- and 5-year olds something temporal to hold onto. Some things you can do to reinforce this time concept are:
    • Whenever possible, use the “language of time” to define activities you are doing. Emphasize words such as soon, later, early, yesterday, today, tomorrow, next week, morning, noon and evening. Point out a concrete experience to illustrate the word when you use it. For example, “We will be leaving soon.” Encourage these words when talking with your little one about her artwork too. Check out our blog, Talking with Young Children About Their Creations - Your Picture Makes Me Happy even more ideas.
    • Create a weather calendar for marking the passage of days. You or your preschooler can do this by simply drawing a symbol for the weather like a sun, a raindrop, or cloud on the calendar box for each day. Your little one can see the passage of seasons by observing the difference on the calendar pages between its September weather symbols and the February ones. To learn how your child develops their ability to make basic forms, you can check out my blog series on young children's scribbling, specifically A Child's History of Scribbling - Part 3 - Controlled Scribbling and Part 4 - Basic Forms. And don't forget our Materials Guide for time-tested tips for appropriate preschool drawing materials.  

As you read these ideas on your child’s developing sense of time, I think it’s important to remember that while days with young children may seem incredibly long, these years are so short.  They will be grown and gone in an instant! So take this precious time to gently encourage your little one’s sense of how time passes.

Let us hear how it’s going-- how does your child grasp the idea of time? And if you're looking for more info how young children grasp abstract mental concepts like time, read my blog, Prime Times for Brain Development.