Last reviewed 16 July 2021

Time is an abstract concept, a mathematical one made concrete through experiences in the past, in the present and in the future. The language of time is key in helping young children to understand it better. Managing time is a skill for life! Rebecca Fisk discusses how to help young children understand the passage of time.

Present

Early language development for children includes helping them focus on what they are doing now. Talking with children about their actions, what they can see and hear and how they feel in terms of the present helps children with concrete examples of ‘now’. Naming objects, actions and feelings in the moment helps children focus on their experiences and become absorbed in them through play whilst developing a rich vocabulary around them. An example using playdough could be “it feels squidgy – squidge, squidge, squidge” or “now it looks flat, like a pancake” and so on.

Once children understand the ‘now’, it is easier for them to start to understand ‘before’ or ‘next’ (past and future). ‘Not now’ is a phase many parents and carers find themselves saying to children, and this usually means later, for example, when a child wants an ice-cream and parents say “not now but after tea.” Children often want things straight away and using a small sand-timer or kitchen timer can help them learn to wait for a turn. “It’s Nazeem’s turn now, but it will be your turn when the buzzer rings” is an example that can then help children to self-monitor turn taking where buzzers and timers are no longer needed. It cannot be underestimated how important the concept of time is in learning to negotiate socially for turns, for deferred rewards, for waiting when there are delays – all life skills needed in the workplace and adult world too.

Past

Sharing photographs with children helps them to associate themselves with events they might remember and placing this firmly into the past. Language of the past includes ‘before’, ‘a long time ago’, ‘when I was a baby/little’, ‘yesterday’, ‘last time we …’ and so on. Providers can share photographs of children taking part in learning opportunities and talk about them, such as “When you came to nursery last week you made a tower. Shall we look at a photo of the tower you made before? I wonder if you’d like to make another tower today?” Helping children know that time passes and that learning from the past can be linked to learning in the present as well as becoming part of children’s future learning intentions can support the concept of time passing.

Talking about the changes that happen over time is also important for children – changes to themselves such as when they could not walk and talk as a baby and comparing it to what they can do now. Sometimes children will need to revisit past events often to help process them especially if they have been filled with strong emotion, such as when mummy went into hospital (sad) or when they visited the farm animals with grandma (exciting). Allowing this repetition of telling their story or narrative is cementing their sense of time passing as well as their ability to process thoughts and feelings about those past events. Reading stories that have an element of time in them also supports this conceptual development, for example, ‘Once there were giants’ by Martin Waddell and Penny Dale. Making their own story book using photos in sequence and key words or simple sentences can help children share their experience of the passage of time.

Future

When considering the future, it is a good idea to start with the near future such as ‘after lunch’ or ‘next we will’ rather than the more abstract idea of next week, month or year. Sequencing and ordering time through visual symbols and timelines can help children reduce anxiety about what will happen next in terms of the routines of a setting. A day can feel a very long time without their parents and being shown the clear symbol of ‘home time’ after, for example, ‘story time’ will help children begin to understand routines. Using real photos and symbols will support the link to real events in time for children. Some children simply need now and next symbols with time broken down into small manageable chunks. It is well worth investing in the time to prepare these resources and ensure their longevity and robustness so they can be used again and again.

Development Matters

In the new Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) document, within mathematics there are references to children learning about the sequence of events.

Here are some examples quoted in the guidance:

  • Begin to describe a sequence of events, real or fictional, using words such as ‘first’, ‘then...’

  • Talk about patterns of events, in cooking or getting dressed.

  • Suggestions: - ‘First’, ‘then’, ‘after’, ‘before’ - “Every day we…” - “Every evening we…”

  • Talk about the sequence of events in stories.

  • Use vocabulary like ‘morning’, ‘afternoon’, ‘evening’ and ‘night-time’, ‘earlier’, ‘later’, ‘too late’, ‘too soon’, ‘in a minute’.

  • Count down to forthcoming events on the calendar in terms of number of days or sleeps.

  • Refer to the days of the week, and the day before or day after, ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’.

Birth to Five Matters

In the new Birth to Five Matters: Non-statutory guidance for the Early Years Foundation Stage, written by the early years sector, there are further examples for supporting the understanding of the passing of time for children, some of which are included here:

  • The child is beginning to understand some talk about immediate past and future.

  • The child is beginning to anticipate times of the day such as mealtimes or home time.

When children talk about their experiences at home and in the setting, use some language of time (before, later, soon, next, after, morning, afternoon, evening, night-time).

In everyday activities, make a commentary about the sequence of events.

When sharing stories and books, draw attention to routines and time sequences within them.

  • The child is increasingly able to order and sequence events using everyday language related to time.

  • The child is beginning to experience measuring time with timers and calendars.

Support timed challenges by timing runs, trails, obstacle courses, etc. and teach children how to use the stopwatch.

Discuss the order and sequence of events in routines and role play using the language of time (first, then, after, before, next, sooner, later).

Draw children’s attention to visual timetables and clock times, focusing on the hour hand.

Summary

There are lots of different ways to support children to learn about time and change.

Our lives are often structured into measurable amounts of time such as minutes, hours, days and weeks. Children will need to learn about how time is measured and used as they get older and there is much that can be done in the early years through rich language environments to support the pre-skills needed before formal time-telling.

Children can gain a sense of themselves through their experiences, those in the past, within the present and those yet to happen. Adults play a key role in using the right vocabulary and demonstrating to children how time passes in relation to what they know and experience and how certain times are often associated with certain feelings.