When my son was about three or four years old, we would refrain from telling him when his cousins who live abroad are coming home for a vacation. We’d wait until their arrival is only a week or a few days away because you know how it is — they never stop asking WHEN.
“How many more nights?” “Will they be here tomorrow?” “Why are they taking sooo long??” are just some of the variations of the WHEN question. So you would understand why we had to do that; it’s to save ourselves from having to come up with different versions of “NOT YET,” and also for his peace of mind.
How do young kids understand time? In the toddler and preschooler stage, they don’t. According to Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., psychologist and the author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness, “Preschoolers tend to live in the moment,” she tells Parents. That means their brain still cannot grasp the abstract idea of time, which is why even if you tell them that “Your cousins are arriving in 2 weeks,” it won’t really matter to them. They are still going to ask, “Now?”
How do you then make your little one understand the concept of time? Here are a few suggestions from the experts.
How to introduce the concept of time to your child
Do baby steps.
The concept of hours in itself is already difficult to comprehend for your preschooler, what more “next year” or “next month”? So when teaching your child the concept of time, think small. Try 15 minutes at most. If you’re all getting ready and he starts getting fidgety because he doesn’t know when you’re leaving, let him know 15 minutes before you do, so that he gets an idea what 15 minutes looks like.
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A countdown might be helpful, too. Call it out (“We’ll be off in just 10 more minutes” “last five minutes,” and so on), so he knows how time progresses. When he’s used to it, you can progress to longer periods of time.
Speak their language.
Says Allison Kawa, Psy.D., a child psychologist, rather than focusing on dates, try relating time to something that your child is familiar with. For example, that Daddy’s travel from the office to the house takes about the same time as one episode of Barney. Or that the cookie you’re baking will be done after lunch. And while you’re at it, tell your child what happens after that. For example, say, “Today is Monday so you have school. Tomorrow is Tuesday, and you have P.E. on Tuesdays.”
The easiest way to tell time is to use tools: a clock, a sand timer, etcetera. Introduce time by relating it to bedtime, playtime, or the time for prayer. Move the little hands accordingly. Soon after, you can add more activities into his routine, and he’ll understand how it works!