How a Sense of Time Develops

How a sense of time develops

0 to 2 “I GO NOW!”

Be Consistent

For the first six months or so, consistent, responsive interactions with parents help babies make order out of chaos and organize themselves. Reading and responding to babies’ cues builds trust. Nurturing moments help shape babies’ natural body rhythms and schedules.

Recognize Family Style

Predictability and consistency each day are the foundations for a baby’s understanding of time. Each family has its own way of using time, and babies adapt to the family’s style. Babies also bring their own temperaments to their families, adding their voices to what happens and when.

Add Flexibility to Routines

Although toddlers can’t tell time, it is remarkable how they develop a sense of order through routines. Be flexible while respecting the need for routines. Don’t let daily schedules be too rigid, rather, change them to meet toddlers evolving needs, as long as the sequence remains the same.


A 4-year-old announces to her teacher: “Today is my special day! It’s my birthday! We’ll eat my beautiful icing cupcakes at snack time, right after group time. You know, my grandma’s birthday comes after mine. Next week we’ll drive to her house for her party.”

For egocentric preschoolers, the present—where they are right now—is very important to them. Three- and 4-year-olds need lots of meaningful personal experiences with time to gain a clearer understanding of temporal ideas. Their concepts of time begin to form around events…birthdays or washing their hands before lunch. Following a familiar sequence of routines enhances their awareness of present, past and future.

Setting Regular Schedules

Preschoolers need to build on these experiences, because time is such an abstract and intangible concept for them. On birthdays, children can observe the symbols of the passage of time (the candles on their cakes for example, which mean a whole year passed and they’re a year older), even though actual time is invisible.

Three- and 4-year-olds feel secure when they follow the same schedules daily—dress, eat breakfast, ride to school, group time and playtime. Adults can change the length of children’s activities, but it’s confusing if the order of events is changed.

Recognizing Before and After

Preschoolers understand the concepts of before and after. For instance, a child may recognize that group time occurs before snack time. Although 3- and 4-year-olds can describe past events using the appropriate words, such as “last week” or “a few days ago,” they may not get the duration of time right. For example, “yesterday” might have been two days before.

Understanding Time-Telling Tools

Although preschoolers cannot read abstract time-telling aides such as analog clocks and calendars, they know these are tools that measure the passage of time.

Representing Time with Words

As preschoolers develop a sense of time, they become comfortable using a variety of words for units of time. By 4, children will proudly hold up four fingers to show you their age. Also, children may use seasonal words in context, such as “Last winter, we made a snowman on the playground.”


The concept of time can be difficult for 5- and 6-year-olds to grasp, because it is so abstract. As children experience the world, their concept of time becomes integrated into their lives and vocabularies.

Linking Time to Events

The words for yesterday, today and tomorrow are only understandable when they are linked to specific events or activities that make the concept of time concrete.

Using a Calendar

Kindergarten children learn about time by observing and recording it. Weather is an observable (and changeable) phenomenon by which to mark the passage of days. Five- and 6-year-olds can remember that yesterday was sunny and today is cloudy.

Exploring Concepts of Time

Perhaps most confusing are concepts of past, present and future. These words are more abstract than yesterday, today and tomorrow. Five- and 6-year-olds are beginning to understand their parents did things in the “old days,” and their grandparents did things even further back. Kindergartners can begin to understand these concepts by exploring both old and new ways to do things.

Structuring the Day

Recognizing the parts of the day is the most basic way children become aware of the passage of time. Their capacity to learn about time increases as they become aware of events reoccurring at specific times of day.

Kindergartners want to know what time it is and are beginning to understand that certain things (like the start and end of school) happen at specific times. Make a photographic timeline for the day at school, marking each event with a picture of the clock with time written numerically. This will give children an easy reference tool for understanding when things are going to happen.