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How to help children understand time

Nina Chen, Ph.D., CFLE, human development specialist, Jackson County, University of Missouri Extension


Adults spend a lot of time thinking about time — yesterday, today, tomorrow, hours and minutes are all part of an adult’s life. Young children, however, are concrete thinkers and don’t understand the concept of time and what it means. Children learn best when they can touch, feel or see something, so time can be confusing for them. A child’s readiness for learning about time is based on the stages of brain development. The process is slow and may take years, but children begin to understand the concept around age 11.


Young children and elementary school-age children learn best by thinking about real things and linking what they learn to their own real-life experiences. Parents can help children learn about time by incorporating a regular routine. Children feel more secure with a routine because they have the experience and begin to learn about the passage of time.


Giving children an advance warning about changes in routines can help minimize frustration, problems and confusion, and build more cooperation and flexibility. If children are asked to stop playing and get ready for bed, they may not want to because they’re having fun. If they’re given a five-minute warning, children learn that a change is coming. Although they don’t know the meaning of five minutes, they begin to understand that they need to finish playing and get ready for bed. Children are more likely to be receptive to a change if they know what will happen next. Let children know of any changes before they are going to happen.


Setting aside time to talk to children about how they use their time is also important. Having family conversations at the dinner table gives parents a chance find out what their children did during the day. This also provides an opportunity to teach children new words like before, after, yesterday, today, tomorrow, day and night.


Beneke, S., Ostrosky, M., & Katz, L. 2008. Calendar time for young children: Good intentions gone awry. Young Children, 12-16.


Last Updated 05/05/2009


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