“This is your two-minute warning!” you call as you get ready to leave the park, or “five more minutes until dinner!” As adults, our lives are centered around hours and minutes, calendars and clocks.
But as we know, children don’t see things that way. Even without reading a clock, the passage of time is really complicated—and takes years to fully grasp.* That being said, your two-year-old does have some understanding of time, even if it may not seem like it.
They are learning that time is always flowing, that there are rhythms and patterns in time, and that there is a “before,” a “now,” and an “after.” Routines, sequences, and using time-related words all lay the groundwork for your child’s developing understanding of this complex concept.
Here’s how you can teach your child about time:
Your timeless two-year-old
As Carla Poole from Bank Street College of Education says, “two-year-olds have all the time in the world. Adults never have enough.” When you can, give your child as much time as they need to complete a task that they want to try on their own. For example, removing their shoes might be a 10-minute process: taking one off, wandering around for awhile with one shoe on, and then finally taking the second shoe off after you remind them again. They simply aren’t in a hurry.
Talk about time as first, next, and last
Children at this age depend on routines, and chances are they already know some everyday sequences. Bedtime may include first a bath, then brushing teeth, then pajamas, then a story, and last, a lullaby. Describe the actions in terms of order: “next, it’s time to get your toothbrush ready.”
Demonstrate time visually
A visual timer is a great way to connect the passage of time to something concrete and visible. The Countdown Color Timer, a sand timer, or a kitchen timer all show the minutes ticking by. Using a visual timer can also help with transitions and anticipation, occupying your child while they’re waiting for something exciting to happen (like a guest’s arrival) or alerting them that an activity is ending soon.
Use concrete numbers
Even though your child is years away from truly understanding elapsed time, you can still talk about minutes and hours. Set a timer for five minutes and say “the timer will beep in five minutes and then we are going to put on our shoes.” When you’re at the park, giving a consistent reminder—however many minutes you want it to be—will help your child understand how long a certain amount of time feels, as well as a preview that a transition will be happening soon.
Introduce relative terms
Two-year-olds won’t understand absolute terms like “2:30pm” for years, but relative words like “today,” “yesterday,” and “soon” will start to have meaning. It’s possible your child may start referring to anything that happened in the past as “yesterday”—this is normal and shows that they are starting to grapple with the relative nature of time.
Read books about time
When you read to your child about events that happen in certain orders, it helps them deepen their understanding of time as a sequence of events. Books about routines, schedules, and the passage of time can make this complex topic come alive.
*Understanding “before” and “after” doesn’t really develop until around four years old, and it isn’t until age seven that your child will understand what yesterday, today, and tomorrow mean with the same accuracy as adults do. You may notice your child will start to use time-related words years before they really understand what these words mean.
Here are a few of our favorite time-related books for young children:
Please, Baby, Please by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee: Count the hours as mama and baby go about their day.
What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf? by Annie Kubler: Each hour brings something new for Mr. Wolf in this fun finger-puppet tale, with a digital and analog clock on each page.
The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle: Follow the grouchy ladybug as she goes on a journey exploring time, size, and what it means to be a good friend in this Eric Carle classic.
Cluck o’Clock by Kes Gray: A day on the farm with Collin the rooster as he tracks time with rhymes from dawn to dusk—find out what goes on in the henhouse after dark!
A Second, a Minute, a Week with Days in It: A Book About Time by Brian P. Cleary and Brian Gable: From seconds to decades, this book counts up and then down building on the concepts of time.
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When do children learn to tell time?
Routines, sequences, and using time-related words all lay the groundwork for your child’s developing understanding of time.