Inside: Time is an abstract concept that kids can’t see. Help kids understand time with these simple tips and tools.
Kids don’t understand time. Your child (under the age of 7) has little to no concept for hours, minutes, seconds or even days and longer.
That means that phrases like:
“5 more minutes!”
“We are leaving in 1 minute.”
“You need to sleep until 7 am.”
These phrases make no sense to young children. They provide them with absolutely zero information… unless we change that.
Why do we expect kids to understand something so invisible?
It’s okay that children don’t understand time. It’s what’s developmentally expected and beyond typical in their growth. Young children aren’t meant to understand time.
This is NOT me being a kid-pessimist. It’s me living in reality. It’s also me trying desperately to help stop a lot of problems that happen around our parental/adult expectations of kids “knowing” time.
Kids don’t understand time – so let’s do things a little (A LOT) different.
Why don’t kids understand time?
Time is abstract. Kids can’t see it or feel it. They can’t touch it or hold it.
Time is abstract (saying this one more time for good measure/emphasis/dramatic writing effect).
Kids are young and new and just starting out in the world. They’re developing an understanding life around them and this starts with what they can see. Remember, this is a crowd that’s either working on or just mastered “object permanence” (understanding you didn’t really disappear during peek-a-boo).
It’s no wonder they don’t understand a 1-minute warning at the park and then act shocked when it’s time to leave 60 seconds later. Time is abstract for them.
This disconnect between adult understanding of time and kid understanding of time leads to a lot of gap and difficult transitions.
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That’s because (say it with me) “time is abstract.”
So often in our adult lives, we take for granted the years of knowledge and brain development we are working with.
We do this with emotional development when we assume kids should have a logical reaction to a problem (not meltdown over the wrong color plate).
We do this in education when we assume learning skills is really easy and forget (for example) how complicated something like learning to read is.
And we do this with time: we assume kids understand something they cannot see or feel just because WE understand how it works.
Reflection time: how much frustration has the concept of “time” caused in your house?
How often are you shocked when your child melts down after you give a 5 minute warning? How frequently are you dismayed that your child hasn’t followed a time based direction (“Rest time ends at 2 pm – do not come out until then.”)?
Time – both our understanding of it and our kids’ MISunderstanding of it – causes a lot of struggles.
Let’s fix that.
There’s a solution to this time problem.
There’s a solution to your kids understanding time. There’s is a BIG way we can help.
MAKE TIME CONCRETE.
Read it again, let it marinade: make time concrete for your child.
Instead of asking your child to understand an abstract concept, make time concrete for them. Let them see time. Let them watch time. Let them observe time.
What are you teaching your child today?
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These are the tools to help make time concrete for your child.
Unfortunately, we can’t magically make time easy for kids to understand. And learning to read clocks is a skill they won’t master until elementary school.
So, until that day, let’s give kids a leg up and help them be successful with time by helping make time concrete for them (I will continue to say that phrase because we must commit it to our memory – time must be made concrete).
Here are four great ways to make time concrete for children:
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Try a countdown timer with visual guide and sound.
This kind of countdown timer is A+++ amazing for kids. There’s a reason why classrooms use this style of timer: it’s really good for showing kids the time they have remaining.
Here’s how to use it: twist the dial to the amount of time the child has left to play, work, eat, stay in their room for rest time, etc. The red bar indicates the amount of time left and it SHRINKS AS TIME SHRINKS.
Holy MAKING TIME CONCRETE, Batman.
Think of this again: as kids get closer to time “expiring” or their time being “up,” the red space gets smaller and smaller. This could not be better for helping kids SEE time.
Once the time is up, it beeps a few times. I don’t love the beep BUT I do love that my kids hear it, recognize it, and know it means time is done.
EXAMPLE USE: My friend is a preschool teacher and she uses this with her daughter at rest time. She sets the timer and when it beeps, rest time is over.
Try an “Ok to Wake” Clock for mornings/nap
We’ve had this little clock since 2016. My kids use it in the morning and it is the SOLE REASON I do not have visitors to my bedroom at 5 am to say “Happy Saturday.”
Kids DO NOT UNDERSTAND when it’s morning and time to get up. They don’t understand why 4:30 am is NOT okay but 7:30 am is. This does not compute.
Instead (say it with me): make time concrete. Give them a VISUAL WAY to know that it is “okay to wake up.” Set this clock to glow green when it is “okay to wake” up. It can be programmed to stay “green” for up to 2 hours so your child isn’t in danger of sleeping through the green light.
This clock (along with firm, clear, and consistent boundaries around what the green light means) will significantly improve your mornings and give your children autonomy in knowing when they are okay to wake.
There are LOTS of these kinds of clocks on the market. I like any style the also shows a clock because it gives kids a real world and daily chance to learn time and time’s relationship to numbers. There is also a version of this clock with both digital and analog clocks that I love for big kids.
EXAMPLE USE: My kids actually use this in two ways. My early to wake daughter has her green light set to 6:30 am. For her, it’s an “it’s okay to get up and play quietly in your room” clock. For my son, it’s an “it’s okay to leave your room” clock and is set to 7:30 am.
Use sand timers to show time counting down.
You can use a timer from a board game or pick up a multi-set (each timer has a different value.
These timer sets come with lots of variety – 1 minutes, 2 minutes, 3 minutes, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, and 15 minute countdowns.
WHY DO THEY WORK: They give kids a way to SEE the time they have remaining in an activity or setting. They’re simple, no batteries needed, and visually appealing.
EXAMPLE USE: The ever amazing Jennifer from Kids.Eat.In.Color recommends sand timers at the dinner table to help kids learn how long they need to remain at the table or have left to eat (if you have a slow eater).
Make a paper chain countdown (it’s basically free!)
Do you have a trip coming up? Birthday? Holiday? Grandma visiting? Make a paper chain countdown as a visual way to count the DAYS until an event.
I typically make our paper chains 15-20 links/days long. Each morning, we pull off ONE paper chain and then we can SEE the amount of time until the big event getting closer and closer.
It’s another way to make time CONCRETE for our kids and it’s (almost) free.
EXAMPLE USE: The paper chain in this photo is from Christmas. We also put acts of kindness onto each loop so every day of December we have a way to spread joy and love around our community. It’s also a great VISUAL way to answer the burning question of “HOW MANY DAYS TO CHRISTMAS?!”
This is a very important PSA for me to share: make time concrete.
Kids do not understand time (yet). They will, but not until we help them develop this “sense” AND until they get a little older.
Until then, stop throwing out abstract measurements or expectations for kids and setting both of you up for trouble.
Instead make this very abstract concept into something concrete, touchable, and visual.
It’s amazing how much this little trick (of making time concrete) can help your child and your days run smoother.