How We Can Help Children Understand Time

‘For a While’ is a phrase whose length cannot be measured. At least by the person who’s waiting.” How these words of Haruki Murakami ring true! I would say, even more so, when we are in the company of children. 

I have experienced this with my child. When she was very small I would say two minutes and she would count till two and tell me that it’s time up. Thankfully she now knows that each minute is 60 seconds so when I say two minutes she counts rapidly till 120.  It is indeed a challenge to keep a young child waiting patiently, as every parent may have experienced.

We believe that every experience of waiting is a stepping stone to teaching our children to be patient. But is this so? When someone has to wait without understanding why they are waiting or for how long, it only makes them feel helpless and resentful. On the other hand, when a person knows that their needs or requests will be met in a reasonable time they would definitely wait with more patience.

A child between the ages of 0 -7 years, whose thinking, logical brain is still developing, quite literally cannot make sense of ‘5 minutes’, ‘a little while’ or ‘some time’. Plus, at this age, they are so driven by their emotions, it is no surprise that any unmet need leads them to whine or cry. In this case, how can we help our little ones deal with waiting?

For young children, time is an abstract concept. A small child who wants to go out to play doesn’t care that it is 2 pm in the afternoon and blazing outside. If we tell them we can go after it cools down or at 4.30 pm, they will ask us ‘Is it 4.30 yet?’, every few minutes! We could help them by drawing a clock on paper and connecting it with the real clock on the wall. Show them where the hands are now and what it would look like at 4.30. This is something more concrete which the child can relate to. Along with this, it's also important to acknowledge the child's feelings with statements like- “I know how much you are longing to go out.” “I can see you are finding it hard to wait.” The child calms down because he feels heard and understood and is confident that his needs will be attended to. 

A child who is engrossed in play or watching a program may find it very hard to tear themselves away from it, just because it is dinner time or time to go home. It's useful to set an alarm when they start an activity and tell them that when the alarm rings, they need to start wrapping up their activity. At this point, we could even negotiate and ask, “How many minutes more?” The opportunity to choose gives them a sense of control and also helps them to take on the responsibility.  After that, we could have a second and final alarm to remind them that the activity must now end. 

These are just two ways I have shared to help a child make sense of time, especially when they are at an age where they do not know how to read time. What are the other creative ways that you use or used when your children were younger? Do take a moment to share with a parent of a young one. They might find it invaluable! 


Author: Seemanthini Iyer is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connection in families.