Parents—how well would you say your young children understand time? They may have memorized how many seconds make a minute and how minutes make an hour, but until age 7 children don’t really understand time durations, according to research from the University of California at San Diego.
It makes sense when you think about it. Time is a human construct, not an innate experience. It’s not something children learn quickly but takes years to fully understand how it feels to have seconds, minutes and hours pass. Children experience time by how long it takes to complete tasks and during frustrating situations, for example. Unless children are forced to pay attention to it, time makes little sense to them.
Children 2-3 years old start using time-related words (seconds, hours, minutes), despite not knowing what they mean yet. According to UCSD’s research, around age 4, children generally know that an hour is longer than a minute but until age 7, they have difficulty understanding that 3 minutes is shorter than 2 hours, for example. It’s not until ages 8-9 that they start to master clocks.
Children learn abstract concepts such as time, colors and emotions similarly. They understand that words in a given domain are related before learning formal definitions and linking the words to the experience.
Visual tools, verbal instructions from parents (e.g. ‘please wait’, ‘not yet’, ‘in a few minutes’), as well as formal instruction explaining the way days are divided into hours and hours into minutes can help children better understand time.