As grown-ups, we spend much of our time thinking about time, whether it’s seconds, minutes and hours - or yesterday, today and tomorrow.
But as Dr Angharad Rudkin and I reveal in our recent book, “What’s My Child Thinking?”, time is an abstract concept for young children – and it will take a few years of their own personal life experience, along with thoughtful guidance from adults, for them to start to understand it.
Although it can feel challenging, helping children understand time is always worth it. Explaining the sequences of events and the passage of time from the past to the present - and the future - will not only help them make sense of their world, but will also make it feel like a safer, and more predictable place.
Here’s the “What’s my Child thinking?” guide to helping children develop their concept of time up to the age of seven.
Ages 2 to 3
At this age, children only really understand what they can touch or feel. They have not yet developed the higher brain functions to understand how to count minutes and hours. They also live mainly in the moment. Their concept of the passage of time is based on knowing that things happen at roughly the same times in their day, like getting up when it’s light, eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, and going to bed when it gets dark.
By hearing you link these events to words, like ‘before’ and ‘after’, a child will start to understand that things happen in a predictable sequence.
However at this stage, when you say ‘tomorrow’, that’s a concept which is still too far away and abstract for most children this age to imagine. As children are still developing self-control and so find it hard delaying gratification, this can also make them seem very impatient to adults. This is because in a child’s mind, they want an event they are looking forward to, like a visit to the zoo, to happen right now - so that’s when they think it should happen.
How to help:
Avoid telling children about events too far in advance: At this stage, save the news of exciting upcoming events until a few days or hours before, so they do not get too overexcited too soon.
Use lots of time words: Nursery-age children are ready to understand concepts like ‘before’ and ‘after’, so work these words into your descriptions of their day.
Show how time passes: As they get a little older, you can use visual tools to help children understand time. For example, you could stick a timetable of the week on the wall. If you are planning a zoo visit for example, you could move a picture of an animal along as it gets closer to the day you are going.
Age 4 to 5
By this age, a young child’s understanding of time is starting to evolve. They have experienced enough of the routine of life to start to understand that days add up into weeks and months. This means they can now refer to events that happen as ‘last week’ or ‘next week’, though they may not get these descriptions quite right.
So a child who says “yesterday” may be talking about an event that happened two of three days ago. By now, children are also gradually developing a concept of the years passing. So a four-year-old may now hold up four fingers to show you what age he is. The same child may also have enough experience of the world to relate activities to different times of year.
So he may understand that Christmas happens when it’s cold in winter, while Halloween takes place when the leaves fall off the trees in autumn. This means children can start to look forward to events, like birthdays, several months in advance.
How to help:
Listen to memories: Pay attention when children talk about the past and ask for more details. Ask a child what they were feeling or thinking at the time. This sort of interaction makes a child feel important and validates the way they experience the world.
Introduce concepts of smaller units to time: Help them learn to divide up time into minutes and seconds. Try an egg timer, which takes one minute to empty, to show how long it lasts.
Help them notice the weather: Watching the weather can help children understand the passage of the days. Making a weather chart in which youngsters can mark their observations will enable them to better understand the ideas of ‘yesterday’, ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’ better.
Age 6 to 7
By now, children, understand that clocks represent the symbolic passing of time. They also understand that time passes in a predictable way - in the same units of seconds, minutes and hours - for everyone. This is partly due to the fact that children’s frontal lobes are now more efficiently wired up to the rest of their brains, so they are able to start viewing the world in a more logical way. This allows them a better grasp of what numbers can symbolise, while their working memory allows them to hold numerical ideas in their heads. This higher-order thinking also allows them to plan more for the future and have a better memory, so they are now better able to understand the broader concepts of the past, present and future.
How to help:
Teach kids the value of time: Set start and end times on a timer to show children how to estimate how much time an activity, like putting away toys, will take. Make it fun by turning it into a race. This is not to pressure them, but to help them estimate time and develop planning skills.
Read clocks with them. Start with the short hand. Tell them look at where it’s pointing first to find out what ‘o clock’ it is. Explain that when the big hand goes all the way round and back up to the top again, an hour has gone by. Show them how to make a basic clock out of a paper plate and write the numbers round the edge in the same order so they start to understand the concept of ‘clock-wise.’
Show them how time relates to their day: Talk about what a clock face will look like – and where the little hand and big hand will be - when their favourite things in the day happen, so they start to notice how time passes.
Taken from “What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents”, by Tanith Carey and clinical psychologist Dr Angharad Rudkin, which uses child development to look at more than 100 different scenarios for two-to-seven-year-olds. Available in book shops and on Amazon.co.uk.
About the author:
Tanith Carey writes books which offer a lucid analysis of the most pressing challenges facing today’s parents and childcarers – by looking at the latest research and presenting achievable strategies for how to tackle them. Her books have been translated into 15 languages, including German, French, Arabic, Chinese and Turkish. Her 2019 publications are “What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents” and “The Friendship Maze: How to help your child navigate their way to positive and happier friendships”. Tanith Carey writes books which offer a lucid analysis of the most pressing challenges facing today’s parents and childcarers – by looking at the latest research and presenting achievable strategies for how to tackle them. Her books have been translated into 15 languages, including German, French, Arabic, Chinese and Turkish. Her 2019 publications are “What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents” and “The Friendship Maze: How to help your child navigate their way to positive and happier friendships”.
An award-winning journalist, Tanith also writes on parenting for the Daily Telegraph, The Times, the Guardian and the Daily Mail, in which she also serialises and promotes her books. She is also a regular presence on TV and radio programmes, including the NBC Today Show in the US and Radio Four Woman’s Hour and You and Yours.
Her full bio can be found on her website at www.cliomedia.co.uk and you can follow her on social media channels @tanithcarey.