Babies start life with a distorted concept of time: Night is day, and everything is now. As toddlers, their first introduction to the word “time” might have a negative connotation when they get a “time out” for bad behavior. But in the busy world that most families live in, one of the most important lessons that a child can learn is not only how to tell time, but also how to understand the concept and appreciate the importance of time.
Time is easy to teach, because children naturally love to learn about it. They use their senses—listening to the tick tock of a grandfather clock, feeling the buttons on a watch, watching a clock’s second hand sweep around its face—and they can gain confidence in simply learning to recognize the numbers on a clock.
Erika Karres, Ed.D., author of the book Make Your Kids Smarter, says that you don’t need to take much time to teach time, and the lessons don’t have to be formal, sit-down sessions. “Time is easily taught in little segments, just mentioning it here and there,” she says. While in the car, ask your child, “How long do you think it will take us to drive to the grocery store?” Announce each minute as it passes, and reveal the total time when you park the car.
Watch the Watch
Better yet, give your child a watch or stopwatch, so he can see time pass himself. A watch is a visible, tangible symbol of time, and children can best wrap their minds around an idea when they also can wrap their fingers around something that represents it. Set the stopwatch alarm to beep at one minute and challenge your child to see how many toys he can put away in that minute, or how far away from home you can walk together in a minute, or five, or fifteen.
Parenting specialist Sally Goldberg, Ph.D., author of Baby and Toddler Learning Fun and Make Your Own Preschool Games, agrees that young children love a hands-on approach. She suggests that you and your child work together to make time—that is, make a clock out of a paper plate that shows the time. Mark times on the clock that are significant in your child’s day, such as mealtime and bedtime. “Repeatedly show this clock face at the time of the event,” says Goldberg. “The repetition will make an impression.”
Paula Ford of Manhattan, Kansas, has used that tactic to reinforce both the concept of time and the idea of responsibility in her son, Paul, since he was six years old. She marked a clock with important times in his day, including when he wakes up (7:30), when he needs to get dressed and make his bed (8:00), and when he leaves for school (8:20). Now eight years old and in third grade, Paul understands not only how to tell time, but also how to function within his daily schedule.
Karres says that even very young children can begin to understand what time means in their lives. “Kids don’t actually have to tell time to understand the concept of time,” she says. The kitchen is an ideal place for children to begin to learn about time. “The kitchen timer is a wonderful teaching tool—if you’re baking cookies, and you set the timer for 10 minutes, they understand,” says Karres.
You can help your child’s time-related education by not throwing around time terms lightly—and by being timely yourself. Resist the urge to buy time to continue a conversation with another mom at the park by saying to your child, “You can play for five more minutes,” if you think it’s likely that you’ll keep talking for at least 10. If your child asks you to play a game with him, don’t tell him, “I’ll be there in a minute,” unless you really plan on giving him your attention in 60 seconds.
The Big Picture
The larger blocks of time—days, weeks, years—are probably more difficult for children to comprehend than seconds, minutes, and hours. Karres suggests that parents keep a calendar marked with holidays and birthdays handy. “Tear off the pages for the day, or for the month, and they see time is passing and how valuable it is,” she says.
Stargazing is a way to illustrate to your child the largest block of time. “In the evening, when it’s getting dark, look out into the universe and talk about how hundreds of years ago, people looked out at the same stars,” says Karres. When your child understands time—and timelessness—he also understands that he is part of larger world. And that, definitely, is time well spent.