For the past few months, my 3-year-old has peppered me with time-related questions. "Tomorrow will I wear my white shoes?" she asks as I put her black Mary Janes on. "We can play hide-and-seek after lunch?" she inquires as I set the table. Those are the easy ones. "Soon I will be a baby again?" and "Tomorrow will be my birthday?" (an event that is six months away) leave me scrambling for an answer she can process.
Experts say that her limited grasp of minutes, hours, days, and months is typical for her age. "Preschoolers tend to live in the moment," says Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness. The part of the brain that handles abstract thinking is still developing, making it difficult for kids this age to understand why they have to wait a few hours for Mom and Dad to take them to the playground or the difference between five and seven o'clock. Fortunately, there's plenty you can do to satisfy your child's growing curiosity and make the concepts of time more relevant to her everyday life.
If you tell your child that he's not going to Grandma's house for a week, be ready for a daily "Can we leave yet?" But a shorter time frame will be much easier for his mind to master, says Dr. Lombardo. Having experience with how long it takes for a few minutes to pass can make him more patient and help him cope with brief holdups in his daily life, such as giving the freshly baked cookies 15 minutes to cool down before he can gobble one up.
Look for opportunities to give him a countdown to an upcoming event ("We're leaving the park in five minutes"). Then call out the minutes so he'll be more aware of how time progresses. He'll soon learn that five minutes is about how long it takes to go down the slide five more times.
Once your child grasps two or five minutes, you can move on to longer time frames, such as 10 minutes. It's helpful to compare a length of time with a certain activity. For instance, if your family usually sits down to dinner for 20 minutes, tell your child that a 20-minute visit to the pediatrician will take as long as supper, suggests Dr. Lombardo. A half-hour trip to the supermarket might be one episode of Dora.
Use Kid-Friendly Explanations
Rather than focusing on specific times and dates, try describing when something occurs by linking it to an event in your kid's life, says Allison Kawa, Psy.D., a child psychologist in Los Angeles. At midday, say, "It's 11:30; that's almost lunchtime." For family movie night, explain that you'll put the movie in at 7 p.m., which will come after dessert.
Although children may be able to recite the days of the week in order, what they're really learning is a pattern, not that Saturday is two days after Thursday. To help your daughter tune in to the idea that days form a week, make a point of mentioning what day it is every morning ("It's Monday, so that means you go to preschool today. Tomorrow will be Tuesday").
Make It Visual
Your child can absorb more information if she can actually see what's going on. Kids this age relate well to sand timers, says Dr. Kawa. Tell your child, "In five minutes it will be time for a bath." Then turn the timer over and follow through. Or if one parent is going on a weeklong business trip, buy or make a large 30-day calendar. Draw an airplane flying away on the date Mom or Dad leaves and another airplane on the date they return. Have your child cross off each day as it passes. The next time she asks how many days until Mom or Dad gets back, you can count the days together.
You can also introduce the clock. Put a digital one in your child's room and explain that she has to stay in bed until the first number on the clock is a 7. When you first show her a clock with hands, move the little hand to different hours, pausing at each number to mention her daily routine (12 o'clock -- time for lunch!). Your child will soon be associating numbers with activities, and time will become a comfortable, rather than confusing, concept in her life.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Parents magazine