Toddlers and preschoolers have only one concept of time: now. That’s why it’s so hard for them to wait—the future is abstract, and even the past is fuzzy. ‘Yesterday’ and ‘last month’ are practically the same.
By the time your child turns four or five years old, he may be ready to learn about minutes, hours, weeks and months. The challenge is to make it concrete. Kids use their senses to learn, so all the explaining in the world won’t be as effective as a fun, tangible activity. Try some of these.
1. Mark your calendars!
Give your child his calendar where he can scratch off each day as it passes. (Hang it low enough for him to check it whenever he wants.)
Draw symbols for special events or family routines, like a church for Sunday service or balloons for a friend’s birthday party. This not only teaches time, but builds a sense of stability and eases anxiety (like right before a doctor’s appointment).
Use this to practice counting, too! ‘How many days till we visit Grandmother? One…two…three…’ Eventually your child will be able to count chunks of time, and you can even use the calendar to teach him responsibility and reinforce family rules: ‘You can only watch television on Saturday and Sunday.’
You can add fun, creative touches—especially if you want to build anticipation for special events. For example, draw little apples for the last month leading to the first day of school, and have your child color one every day. You can also add cotton-ball beards to Santa faces before Christmas, or stick a smiley-face sticker in the weeks before a family vacation.
2. Set up a weekly and monthly reward system.
This combines teaching time with good habits. Print out an eight-column chart. The first column should have icons for behavior you want to reinforce, while the other columns are for the days of the week. Want to teach him to do chores? Your chart can showcase a cup (for setting the table) or a puppy (for changing the pets’ water). You can also put icons for rituals (bath, brushing teeth) or play routines (art time, book time, outdoor time).
Your child marks off or checks each off each day where he completes his ‘to-do list.’ After one week, he gets a small reward (like his favorite ice cream). After one month, he gets a big reward (like a new book).
3. Use an oven timer.
This is a really fun way to teach your child about ‘minutes’ and prevent tantrums too. Use an oven timer to give him advance warning about the next activity. ‘This will ring in five minutes. Then we have to leave the playground.’ Or, ‘Let’s play Beat the Clock! Can we put away the blocks before it rings? We have three minutes!’
4. Use a real and a pretend clock.
Make a pretend clock with a paper plate and two arrows cut from cardstock. Pierce a brad through the arrows, and then write numbers with a thick black marker.
Now, use this clock to help your child learn how to tell time and feel more control of her every day routine. Let’s say he needs to sit down for lunch by 12:00 noon. Set that time on your pretend clock, and point to the real clock. ‘In 15 minutes, that clock will look like this,’ you say. ‘Then, it’s time to eat lunch.’
5. Look for fun (and free) games and worksheets.
6. Use familiar and concrete analogies.
If you and your family are going on a long road trip, avoid the endless stream of ‘Are we there yet?’and ‘Why is it taking so long?’ by using familiar time analogies, like ‘It will take as long as four episodes of Barney.’
7. Give your child a stopwatch.
Many kids love playing with a stopwatch. Try games like ‘how many times can you jump in one minute?’ or (if you’re in the car) ‘how many yellow houses can you see in five minutes?’