Time is a tricky concept—even for us adults. Some days seem to drag on for a year and others fly by in a minute. But understanding time helps kids to use their time well. It’s a key part of executive functioning skills such as planning and prioritizing.
A sense of time develops over time. Two and three year olds enjoy the predictability of routines but live mostly in the present, their sense of time involves mainly “now or not now,” and they have limited ability to wait. Five and six year olds have a clearer understanding of past, present, and future. They can anticipate happy events and have some grasp of “next week” versus “tomorrow” versus “a long time ago.” Seven to ten year olds have the arithmetic skills necessary to use clocks and calendars.
Talking about time as it comes up in your daily life can help your child grasp important concepts. Here are four key questions you can use to support your child’s developing sense of time:
1) What comes next? This involves an awareness of time. For young children this could involve a predictable routine, such as brush teeth, read story, say prayers, kiss goodnight. Preschoolers begin to understand that certain things happen on certain days—for instance, you can explain that Monday and Wednesday are school days. For older children, you can help them write family members’ birthdays on the calendar or count the days to a family vacation.
2) What happened before? This question helps children recall experiences, which helps them make future predictions. For instance, with a young child you might say, “Remember the last time Maggie babysat you? You played tea party!” For older children, with a growing sense of personal identity, you can be your child’s biased biographer, talking about how they overcame past challenges. “Remember when you didn’t know how to ride your bike? Then you practiced and practiced, and look at you now, whizzing around!”
3) How long? Developing a sense of how long certain activities will take is a difficult but essential skill. Once your child knows how to count, you can use this is a way to mark time. For instance, with two siblings and one toy, you could say, “Count to 30, then it’s Jeremy’s turn.” You can also talk about the length of routine activities, to help your child get a feel for duration. “It takes us ten minutes to walk to school. Your favorite show is half an hour long.” Playing with kitchen timers and stopwatches can also be a fun way to learn about duration. How long can your child hold her breath? How long does it take to do a page of math facts?
4) Which first? This time concept refers to priorities. With younger children, you’ll be establishing most of these. “Wash hands before snack.” “Pick up the toys before we go out.” Older children may still need your guidance sometimes to choose a long-term benefit over a short-term gain. “Homework first!” However, they can increasingly be involved in thinking about how they spend their time. Would they rather spend 20 minutes complaining about an assignment or get it done quickly? Which sport or activity do they want to do afterschool? How much time do they like with no scheduled activities?
One final thought: Don’t expect adult-style productivity from children! Yes, functioning in the world requires time awareness, but some of the most delicious moments in life involve losing track of time while we spend time with friends, get lost in a book, or just day dream.
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