If you’ve ever told your toddler to “wait five minutes,” you know it’s more likely that she’ll suddenly grow an inch than understand what five minutes means!
Understanding time is remarkably complex, and it develops gradually, into early elementary school. It’s a long road to the day when your child actually gets it when you say, “We’ll see Grandma in one week.” But, the foundations of time sense begin early.
The Foundations of Time Sense
Primitive Sense of Time
During the first few months of your baby’s life, it may have felt like you lost your sense of time. Sleep schedules are off. Feedings and diaper changes happen at random intervals. It may seem like there’s no difference between 2 am and 2 pm! Then, slowly, a routine starts to take shape as the concept of time starts to creep back into your life. This is thanks to your baby’s development of a primitive sense of time. In 1972, researchers discovered that early on, babies develop the ability to recognize a temporal interval between events.
Awareness of Sequences
Around age 8 months, babies develop an awareness of event sequences, or an understanding that certain things precede others.
Around age 15 months, little ones can grasp the steps of a routine: First this, then this, finally this.
Concept of Day and Night
Around age 22 months, toddlers’ sense of time takes a giant leap as they develop a cognitive understanding of the concept of day and night.
Basic Understanding of Past and Future
Between ages 34 and 36 months, children grasp, in a general way, that there is a past. But, they may still refer to anything in the past as “yesterday.” They also understand some basic differences related to the close future (such as the differences between now, soon, and later).
Supporting Development of Time Sense
Your toddler’s true time sense won’t emerge until early elementary school, but you can support the foundations in a few key ways:
- Promote routines – Doing similar things in a similar order each day, and teaching multi-step tasks (like hand-washing) helps your child develop an understanding of sequences.
- Use general time-related terms – Because your child can’t grasp what “fifteen minutes” means, you can use terms like before, after, first, next, and then. For example, “We will go to the park after lunch.”
- Explore the “Cognitive” activities in our BabySparks program for fun ways to support time sense foundations!
There’s one thing we know for sure, a toddler’s lack of time sense can feel exasperating! Minutes and hours mean nothing and waiting periods just can’t be measured. It’s all part of the wild ride of toddlerhood! One day in the not-so-distant future, she’ll be marking dates on a calendar and asking for her first watch. Until then, enjoy the timeless ride!