Oh-so-excited 4-year-old Sapphire yells to her mom before school, "Today is my special day. It's my birthday! We will eat my cupcakes at snacktime, right after group time. You know, Nana's birthday comes after mine. Next week we'll drive to her house for her party."
Preschoolers need to have lots of meaningful, personal experiences with time (bedtime, bathtime, snacktime, 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 hands before lunch. Following and being involved with familiar sequences of routines and schedules enhances time awareness of the present, past, and future.
Before and After
Three and 4 year olds feel secure when they follow routine time schedules — get dressed, eat breakfast, ride to school, participate in group time, engage in free play, and so on. It's possible for adults to change the length of time of their activities. However, it becomes very confusing for your child if the order of events changes. When 4-year-old Jake asks, "When do we play outside?" knowing what to expect in a routine helps him to understand his mom's response when she says, "Right after nap."
Before and after are time concepts understood by preschoolers. For instance, Sapphire knows that group time occurs before snacktime. She is also aware that her Nana's birthday comes the week after hers. When Sapphire announces she will go to visit her Nana next week to celebrate her birthday, she indicates the ability to anticipate an event in the future and also make plans for it.
Emily, a 3 year old, explains to her friend, "Yesterday, you rode the red trike. I had the blue one." Although preschoolers have the ability to describe events that happen in the past and know specific words that describe past events (last week, 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.
Although preschoolers cannot really read clocks and calendars, they're aware that these are tools that help 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." Some 4 year olds begin to recognize that when both hands are straight up on the clock, it's time for lunch. And some are able to identify written numbers and read them on a digital clock. However, this does not mean they can actually tell time.
As preschoolers develop a sense of time, they're really quite comfortable and knowledgeable using a wide variety of words for units of time in the past, present and future. Ivan knows that he is 4 years old and he may proudly hold up 4 fingers to show you his age right now. Here are ways to encourage your child think about the concept of time:
- Read books about time, such as Good Night Moon, to help children put closure on the day. Reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a fun way to learn about names of the days of the week.
- Keep a family "Event Book." Draw pictures or take photos of special happenings, holiday activities, field trips, or visitors' activities. Add sequential pages to the events book to create a visual timeline to review.
- Create a weekly calendar strip and personalize it with special pictures for various days: Fire truck visit (Tuesday), Marc's birthday (Friday). Ask your child related questions, such as "How many days until Marc's birthday?" Count the days. At the end of each day, cross it out.
- Look at baby pictures of your child and favorite early childhood toys and clothes. Talk about "long ago" and when he was younger. Share items, such as games and books, from when you were young (very long ago to your child!) to gain a sense of time.