Ages & Stages: How Children Develop a Sense of Time

Use children's personal experiences to help them understand time concepts

  • Grades: Early Childhood, Infant, PreK–K

Stage by Stage 0-2

  • Infants need individualized feeding, sleeping and playing schedules.
  • Gradually introduce toddlers to routines that mesh with the needs of the group.
  • Give toddlers plenty of time to move from one activity to another. This lowers their natural need to resist direction.

Stage by Stage 3-4

  • Time is still very much an abstract concept for threes and fours.
  • Preschoolers need lots of personal experiences with time (snacktime, storytime) in order to develop an understanding of time concepts.
  • Before and after are two concepts of time that preschoolers can now understand.

Stage by Stage 5-6

  • Kindergartners define time by recognizable events and symbols.
  • Five- and 6-year-olds learn about time by observing and recording it (for example, charting the weather).
  • Five- and 6-year-olds are beginning to understand that certain events occur at a defined time each day.

0 to 2   "I GO NOW!" by Carla Poole

The world of the newborn is a kaleidoscope of feelings, sights, sounds, and smells. Though some babies quickly develop predictable feeding and sleeping patterns, this can take quite a bit of time for most newborns. In fact, moving from alert to sleep can be an arduous affair in spite of loving efforts to soothe a baby.

Be Consistent

For the first six months or so, you are helping the baby make order out of chaos. Consistent responsive interactions (like being fed when hungry and soothed when upset) helps babies organize themselves. Reading babies' cues and responding to their signals builds a sense of trust. A multitude of nurturing moments helps babies' natural body rhythms and schedules take shape. Loving relationships are formed and life becomes a more predictable pattern of people, things, and events.

Recognize Family Style

Predictability and things that are consistent each and every day (like night follows day and day follows night) are the foundations for a baby's understanding of time. Each family has their own way of using time, and babies adapt to the family's style, whether that be a style of always "on time," or more casual and less focused on the clock. Babies also bring their own temperament or personality to the family, adding another voice to what will happen and when.

Add Flexibility to Routines

Although toddlers can't tell time, it is quite remarkable how they develop a sense of order through repeated routines. You can 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, 15-month-old Sammy is moving to one long nap instead of two. As a result, he is tired earlier in the day. Lunch is moved up so he can be sure to eat before he sleeps. The events of the morning continue to follow the same sequence of play, snack, outdoors, and lunch. But each is slightly shortened. None of the toddlers are confused by the change, because their routine remains the same.

Be Flexible

Toddlers and 2-year-olds have all the time in the world. Adults never have enough. Respect the toddler's position, even though it is unrealistic. The young child's drive to learn is strong and urgent. When you must interrupt a child's activities, give him time to adjust to the idea. Adults tend to try and stick to the clock. We try to keep toddlers "on time." Going with their timeless pulse of activity whenever possible makes life more enjoyable and enriched for all concerned.

What You Can Do

  • Talk about specific sequences of events. "Mommy will come back after naptime."
  • Review the morning during lunch. "We played inside then we went outside."

3 to 4   "TODAY'S MY BIRTHDAY!" by Susan A. Miller, EdD

Oh so very excited, 4-year-old Sapphire yells to her teacher: "Today is my special day! It's my birthday! We'll eat my beautiful icing cupcakes at snack time, right after group time. You know, my Nana's birthday comes after mine. Next week we'll drive to her house for her party."

For egocentric preschoolers like Sapphire, the present-where she is right now in time-is very important to her. Three- and 4-year-olds need to have lots of meaningful experiences with time in a personal sense (bedtime, storytime) to gain a clearer understanding of temporal ideas. For them, time concepts begin to form around events like Sapphire's birthday celebration or washing their hands before lunch. Following and being involved with a familiar sequence of routines and schedules enhances their time awareness of the present, past, and future.

Setting Regular Schedules

Preschoolers also need to build on these experiences, because time is such an abstract concept for young children. For them, it is rather intangible. For example, Sapphire can observe the symbols of the passage of time (her beautiful cupcakes with birthday candles, which represent that a whole year has gone by and she is now a year older), but the actual time is invisible to her.

Threes and fours feel secure when they follow the same time schedules daily-get dressed, eat breakfast, ride to school, participate in group time, and engage in free playtime. It is possible for adults to change the length of time of their activities. However, it becomes very confusing for young children if the order of events is changed. When 4-year-old Jake asks, "When do we play outside?" knowing what to expect in a routine helps him to understand his teacher's response when she says, "Right after nap."

Recognizing Before and After

Before and after are time concepts understood by preschoolers. For instance, Sapphire knows that group time occurs before snack time. She is also aware that her Nana's birthday comes the week after hers. Her teacher finds it helpful to review the day's events on an experience chart. This reinforces for children timely events, such as how they painted a mural after they went on their walk.

When Sapphire announces she will go to visit her Nana next week to celebrate her birthday, she indicates that she can anticipate an event in the future and plan for it. Recalling past events, Emily, a 3-year-old, explains to her friend, "Yesterday, you rode the red trike. I had the blue one." Although 3- and 4-year-olds have the ability to describe events that happen in the past and know specific words that describe past events ("last week" or "a few days ago"), they may not always get the duration of the time exactly right. For example, Emily's "yesterday" might really be two days ago.

Understanding Time-Telling Tools

Although preschoolers cannot really read abstract time-telling aides such as analog clocks and calendars until they are older, they are aware that these are tools that help them measure how time passes. Three-year-old Allison loves to hold up her pretend watch and use her special clock vocabulary: "Daddy's late today," "in six minutes," or "at ten o'clock." Some 4-year-olds begin to recognize that when both hands are straight up on the clock, it's time for lunch.

Representing Time With Words

As preschoolers develop a sense of time, they are really quite comfortable and knowledgeable using a wide variety of words for units of time in the past, present, and future. By age 4, Ivan knows that he is 4-years-old and he may proudly hold up four fingers to show you his age right now. Sapphire entertains several variations of day ("today," "my special day," "my birthday") and compound examples of time ("group time," "snack time"). At 4, Martha uses seasonal words in context as she relates, "Last winter, we made a snowman on the playground." Jorie, a 4-year-old, has an excellent grasp of the major holidays (Christmas, Fourth of July) and related activities. He shares, "This year I will dress up in a ghost costume for Halloween."

And of course, preschoolers love to relate the past, present, and future to their egocentric selves. Three-year-old Sara giggles as she shares, "When I was a little baby, I wore diapers." Bold 4-year-old Todd explains, "When I grow up, I will be a jet pilot!"

What You Can Do

  • Read books about time words. Share me classic book Good Night Moon to help children put closure on the day.
  • Keep a class "events book." Draw pictures or take photos of special happenings. Keep adding sequential pages to the events book to form an interesting visual timeline to review and discuss.

5 to 6   "I'M GOING TOMORROW!" by Ellen Booth Church

It's morning meeting and the children are gathering for sharing time. The kindergartners' concept of time is evident by their comments. An excited Joshua is saying, "We are going to visit Grandma yesterday!" While a subdued Beth is asking, "Is it time to go home yet?" What's wrong with this picture?

The concept of time can be difficult for 5- and 6-year-olds to grasp, because it is so abstract. A sense of time is gained gradually during the process of living through timespans marked by events. As children experience the world of people and things, their concept of time becomes integrated into their everyday lives, as well as into their vocabularies.

Linking Time to Events

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. During this stage of 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 (a party or trip) or a familiar repeating pattern of the day, these events give 5- and 6-year-olds something temporal to hold on to.

Using a Calendar

Kindergarten children learn about time by observing and recording it. That is one reason why the calendar is a popular part of kindergarten group time. The problem is that sometimes teachers forget to tie the day and date with something observable and recordable. Weather provides a perfect observable (and changeable) event to mark the passage of days. Five-and 6-year-olds can remember that yesterday was sunny and today is cloudy. They can even make a prediction for the weather tomorrow. A weather calendar and graph is a perfect way for children to experience yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Exploring Concepts of Time

Perhaps the most confusing is the concept of past, present, future. As you can imagine, these words are even more abstract than yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Five- and 6-year-olds are beginning to understand that things their parents did were in the "old days," and what their grandparents did was even older than that. Yet, they are still pretty confused by this, as evidenced by Susan who tells her grandmother that she must have "ridden to school on a dinosaur in the old, old days!" Clearly she understands that dinosaurs came from a time in the past, but at the same time she is not sure how far back her grandma goes.

Kindergartners can begin to understand this approach to time by exploring both old and new ways to do things. For example, discuss the way people go from place to place. The old way (in the past) might be to ride a horse and the new way (in the present) is to drive or fly. Ask children to predict how people will move from place to place in the future.

Structuring the Day

Of course, recognizing the parts of the day is the most basic way, children become aware of the passage of time. Their capacity to learn about time increases as they become aware of how events reoccur at specific times during the day. Kindergartners want to know what time it is and are beginning to understand that certain things (like the start and end of school) happen at a defined time each day. Make a photographic timeline for the day at school, marking each event with a picture of the clock at that time and the time written numerically. You will be giving children an easy reference tool for understanding that, "No, it is not time to go home until the end of the day."

What You Can Do

  • Whenever applicable, 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.
  • Create a weather calendar for marking the passage of days. Keep a weather graph of the number of sunny, cloudy, rainy, or snowy days each month. Children can observe the passage of seasons by observing the difference between the September weather graph and the February one.
  • Show children how to make a "time diary" or journal. Children can use plain paper plates to make the pages and decorate them like clock faces. Show the children how to draw the time on the clock and then ask them to draw, paste, or write about what they usually do at that time. Put the paper plate pages together with brass fasteners to make a book.

  • Subjects:
    Early Learning, Child and Infant Care, Time, Learning and Cognitive Development
  • Skills:
    Timelines
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