Introducing children to the concept of time may seem really challenging because when we adults usually think of time, we mean measuring it and being able to tell the time using a watch or a clock. To children time is a completely abstract concept, and measuring it is even more so!
How to measure something that you don’t really understand or can’t see, or touch, or taste, or smell? Using watches may mean no more than being able to decode the system used to represent time. Even though children may know how to use their watches so they can tell it is “twelve o’clock”, it is not necessarily straightforward that they understand what being twelve o’clock means.
Time is abstract for children mostly because they live in the “now”. When you live in the “right here and right now” mode, there is little need to make your life more complicated by introducing time. For sure you often experience your child asking you “When will we get there? When are you going to play with me?” No matter what answer you give, it doesn’t mean much to them because children are the masters of the “NOW”.
This of course doesn’t mean that children are not able to grasp the concept of time at all. At a certain stage of development, kids start to understand some aspects of time and naturally become curious to explore it further, until at a certain point they want to understand the concept of time fuller and make better use of it in daily life.
Here’s 5 practical tips on how you can explain children the concept of TIME referring to the law of cause and effect, and to the past:
1. Observing how things change – try to do it regularly as part of your everyday world observations and you will see how soon your child not only develops the understanding of these changes, but also will start noticing new things by themselves.
Observe the world and point to the things that change with time, such as:
- green leaves turning yellow and dry when seasons change
- freshly cut timber versus dry planks or logs
- freshly cut flowers staying in water for a few days and then withering
- your child digesting food – I had my breakfast in the morning and now in the evening I need to go to the toilet. This is how much time my body needed to transform the food into waste
- observing candles burning out
- watching an hourglass
- observing water vapouring
- observing ice melting
- painting and watching the paint dry
- healing wounds – whenever your child has a scratch, a minor wound or even breaks a bone, use it to show the time the body needs to heal. Obviously you want your child to be safe at all times, but when things happen it is always a good idea to use the circumstances to enhance learning.
2. Using photos – collect your family photos to show and discuss how people change. Ask your child to compare pictures and tell you what has changed about themselves – maybe their hair grew, they became taller, their face changed, etc. Then discuss what has changed on its own and what changed because somebody did something, e.g. an aunt cut or dyed her hair, a grandpa trimmed his moustache, etc. You may do the same for pets if you have ones, or for your neighbours and friends’ pets. Just encourage your child to observe how much the animal has changed including their size, skills, speed, its fur, feathers, etc.
3. Growing plants – encourage your children to grow their own plants and observe the growing process. It will be one of the most meaningful experiences related to time. At first it will be just waiting and watching the time passing by without any visible changes. But when a plant finally starts to emerge, it will be easier for your child to notice how much time is needed for the plant to grow through its different stages. Then, as a follow up, it may be interesting to watch a documentary about plants, which often show the growing process in a fast motion.
4. Taking photographs – observing how things change may be easier when your child has a task or project to complete. Then the motivation and dedication is stronger. Decide with your child what they want to observe and how often. It’s a good idea to observe a few different objects at the same time as some of them will change rapidly while others will take more time, e.g. a tree growing, fields changing colours, your child’s bicycle getting too small, low and high tides, seasons changing, ice melting, fruits and vegetables ripening, sun setting and rising, clouds passing by in the sky. The latter two will be particularly useful to demonstrate the momentary changes happening as you observe the sun or clouds.
5. Using countdown timers – an excellent tool that introduces your child to measuring time, allows them to actually see it passing by as your child observes seconds or even milliseconds changing. Countdown timers are an effective tool to enhancing independence – your child will be able to schedule their own events such as birthdays, holidays, weekend trips or school outings. Apart from that, countdown timers can be used to support many of the projects described above. A good example is the Final Countdown Day Timer app by ThangBom LLC which allows your kid to schedule multiple events at the same time, personalise it by adding their own background photos or turn on a count up mode. This mode may be perfect for projects such as “observing plants growing” or “my body digesting” as the child can actually check and measure how much it takes for things to happen or change. If you use it creatively, the Final Countdown Day Timer app may become one of your child’s favourite toys!
Having said this, you can take your child’s learning further by discussing other processes that contribute to changes such as oxidation, heat, chemical reactions, etc. More ambitious parents may even want to move on to Einstein’s theory of time and space relativity, or quantum physics!