“What day is it today?” my son asked early this morning.
“Friday,” my wife said.
“Today is the first day of summer.”
“That’s right,” my wife said, assuming I had told Felix it was the equinox upon waking or last night before bed.
But I hadn’t, and she hadn’t either. So how did the four-year-old figure this out? Earlier in the week, when Felix asked if it was summertime yet, we told him that it would be on Friday, and the little guy must have held onto that fact, waiting for us to tell him that the day had come.
I’ve written before about how parents recognize the passage of time in their children. That’s ground I’m comfortable on — at 35, the father of a preschooler, time seems to be flying, and I often look for opportunities to slow down and take a breather. What’s harder is explaining the concept of time to my son.
Almost every afternoon around 4 PM, Felix starts in with the questions about when mommy will be home. No matter what I tell him — half an hour, twenty minutes, five minutes, any second now — his answer is usually always the same: “Is that a long time?”
I’ve stopped explaining that the concept of “a long time” is a relative one. Believe me, I’ve tried! It’s out of his grasp. Recently, I’ve focused on how to fill the time. “It won’t seem like a long time if we…” read a book, go for a trike ride, play. Except for him, it is. Time is an abstraction, even though we talk about its passage, measuring it by the clock, every day.
Recently, as his recognizing the first day of summer indicates, he seems to have formed a fundamental understanding of the concept of time. Wow, that’s a mouthful, right? Have no fear! Here are a few simple techniques you can use to help your preschooler learn about time.
Don’t Delay! 1 of 8
Click on for suggestions on how to teach your child about time...
Give Your Child a Calendar 2 of 8
We mounted a calendar down low, at Felix's eye level, so that he can track days on his own. When people are coming to visit, or something special is going to happen, he affixes a sticker or we draw a picture.
Each morning, when we show him what day it is, he's able to see how many days he has till the anticipated event. This morning, for example, my wife put a sticker on the calendar to mark her birthday. Then I asked, "Do you want to put a sticker for when Nana and Pop-pop are visiting?"
"No. They're coming tomorrow. Mommy's birthday is far away."
So already he knows that tomorrow is not too distant in the future, while days that are farther away he can track on the calendar's grid.
Talk About Time As Specifically as Possible 3 of 8
One of the first things Felix asks upon waking, often before he even gets out of bed, is what day of the week it is, in part because on Saturday and Sunday mornings he watches TV for a bit while my wife and me sleep in. That alone gives him an incentive to keep track of the days!
Besides naming the days, I try to speak specifically and enumerate time in my speech as much as possible — "Lunch will be in five minutes," or, "We'll be leaving in ten minutes," as opposed to using generalities like soon or later. As I said in my intro, knowing something is happening in ten minutes doesn't always help him curb his impatience, but it's a start.
Give Your Child a Clock 4 of 8
Similar to a calendar, provide your child a way of keeping track of the hours and minutes in a day. And I don't know, maybe I'm old school, but I find an analogue clock does this better than a digital one. The movement of the hands around the dial is something Felix really gets, while the numbers on the digital clock frustrate him if he doesn't recognize them. Also, there's something wonderfully mechanical about an analogue clock works, while digital devices seem like things we control. Daddy changes the numbers on the microwave with a push of a button. The hands on a clock? I have no power over their slow revolution. (If only!)
Notice How Time Passes in Stories 5 of 8
Concepts of time are essential in storytelling. A story itself is time based; it requires a beginning, middle, and end. Many children's books include details about the seasons or time, all it takes is drawing those notes to a child's attention. Take, for example, when we read William Steig's Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. The story tells how Sylvester the donkey, in moment of panic, magically turned himself into a rock and was then unable to transform back into a donkey. We notice how the seasons are turning, and the search for Sylvester takes several days, and his parents are upset for weeks, etc.
Notice How the Passage of Time Causes Change 6 of 8
Once a week Felix and I take a trip to the food co-op to buy groceries. If we leave the house before 9am, we usually don't have to wait on a line when it's time to check-out. If we head out after 9am, we almost always end up waiting in line. This has given me a good concrete marker by which to break those mornings up. (It also provides incentive to get him out the door early!) Felix is able to see the difference in time by the size of the line.
Similarly, he knows that early in the morning feels cool, while late in the afternoon, when the sun is high, feels hot. We don't see mosquitos out early, but do later in the day. Dew is on the ground in the morning, but not in the afternoon. Look for markers in your daily schedule to help discuss time.
Notice the Passing of Seasons 7 of 8
Looking at his calendar, Felix found a picture of watermelons. "Look, Daddy. This must be summer. We eat watermelons in the summertime."
He was right — the picture went along with July. He's excited for watermelon, just like he's excited for when the leaves will change color and fall off because then we're going to gather them in piles to jump in. We'll get pumpkins in the fall too, and eat fresh, crunchy apples again. And then in winter, when it snows, he's going to throw a snowball at me.
Talk about the passing of the seasons, the changes in the weather, the holidays, and the food that goes along with each.
Use a Timer 8 of 8
When we're waiting for something to happen, I rely on a timer to make the passage of time concrete — Felix can see the dial running down, tracking minutes as it does. (An hourglass or egg timer works well too.) Important note: do not let your child hold the timer, otherwise he might turn the dial ahead or behind, which contributes to the feeling that time is arbitrary. This also can mess with your head.
"The timer went off, Daddy," he told me one day. I was taking a ten minute nap, while he played in his room. With the timer.
"It hasn't been ten minutes yet... has it?" I asked.
Checking a clock revealed that only four minutes had gone by, but for a moment I felt confused. Even for adults, time can be a tricky thing!
One thing to keep in mind: it takes time to teach your kid about time! So don't worry if they don't grab these concepts right away.