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Children and the concept of time

“Tomorrow”, “in a week”, “after sleep”, “in a month”, “wait a minute”, etc. All these notions are hard to understand for very young children! Motherforlife.com explains it all… in two minutes!

We’ll be going in twenty minutes!” If, for you, this sentence is crystal clear, because you understand that you can fold your clothes and put the dishes away in that length of time. For your three-year-old child, it is like speaking Chinese. In fact, he only understands one thing “We’ll go”. For him, time is a very foggy notion. You can find in a Larousse volume dedicated to children aged 4 to 6 that specifics such astomorrow”, “in a week”, “in three months” make no sense for children. They only know that these expressions are in the future or more specifically that they will happen “after” and not “before”. Saying “after lunch”, “when daddy comes back from work” and “before bedtime” will be much more precise for your child then days of the week and dates.

Indeed, it is only after the age of 4 or 5 that he will truly be interested in notions of time, hours and duration. He will begin to try to understand these indications in his own way but will only be comfortable with the present, past, future, days of the week and schedules in first grade (around 6 years old).

Benchmarks instead of hours

Even if the notion of time remains vague for them, we can still initiate younger children to understand their timeframe with some tips adapted to their age. During their first two years, children understand their life and their world by associating them with physiological benchmarks (meals, sleep, bath, etc.) Little by little, they learn “soon” and “wait”.

Near future and past become clearer for children over 3 years old. They can make the difference between “before” and “after” in clear instructions (“Put on your socks on before your shoes » or “We’ll go to the library and after that, we’ll go to the supermarket”)

By the age of 4, they use words like ”before”, “after”, “day”, “night”, “morning”, “yesterday”, “right now”, “later”, “in a moment”, etc. but the duration remains vague unless we base it on a reality that they understand. Saying “We will leave after Chuggington” will make much more sense than “we will leave in 15 minutes”. Similarly, “We will eat dinner when daddy comes back from work” would be easier to understand than “We will eat at 5:00”. Benchmarks help children to locate events in the course of their day. Used to a ritual or a schedule established in daycare, for example, children feel safer when they know what is coming after that they are currently doing. It might not be relaxing for parents, but it grounds them in a sequence that they understand.

It is often around the age of 4 that children ask for a watch, probably because they saw their parents or other adults use one. They know or feel that time influences and shapes our life. We keep saying “Quickly, we’re going to be late!” and “Get up, it’s time!” but we must be careful not to focus on our conception of time as adults.

When they start school, they learn faster. They can tell seasons, days of the week, the duration of an hour or a minute, months of the year and even dates. Between 6 and 8 years old, children learn to read the time on clocks with big and small hands. Digital clocks give time while other clocks allow them to read and decode it. Several books and games can help you teach time to your children.

Choosing the right words
  • Try to use the same benchmarks and associate them with an action that your child knows: “In the morning, you get up and have breakfast”, “We eat lunch at noon”, “In the afternoon, we will go to the library”, “This evening, when your daddy will come back from work...”, “Tomorrow, after sleep, you will go to daycare”, etc.
  • Many songs exist to learn days of the week and months of the year.

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