A Matter of Time: A Great Source for Learning

Time is an amazing dimension. It is unseen and intangible. But once a child starts to master the concepts associated with this dimension, the effects can be astounding serve as a framework that organizes our minds and our experiences.

A parent recently recounted a conversation he had with his five year old daughter. It developed in response to her query as to where stars go in the daytime. He carefully explained that they do not go anywhere; it is just that the bright light of day prevents us from seeing them. She vociferously rejected this idea, claiming that if they were “still there,” she would see them. That’s where the conversation seemed to end. But that was not actually the case. A couple of weeks later, the little girl brought the topic up again, this time reporting a situation she had experienced where super bright sunlight prevented her from seeing something she knew was there. This led her to realize that her father’s statement to her might be valid.

Of course, mastery of time concepts has lots of practical purposes. But, as this anecdote shows, it also has the power to lead children to ponder abstract ideas that lead to major advances in their thinking. So skill in this realm offers major payoff.

But there are obstacles to this goal. The abstract quality of time make it different from many other concepts that young children experience. Left to their own devices and just attending to what they hear around them, children can readily grasp concepts such as size and shape and color. Not so, with time. Most need systematic instruction in this invisible dimension.

As for the content of the instruction, there is a whole range of possibilities: time of day; hour of the day, days of the week, weeks, months, years, etc. Generally it is best and easiest to select one of these and work on it for whatever period is required till your child readily handles the information. Then you can move on to the next concept and continue in the same manner until your child has full mastery of the concepts appropriate to his or her age.

The teaching does not take a lot of time. But it does take a bit of diligence. The concepts require small, steady inputs that are regularly repeated from one day to the next. To illustrate the process, we’ll use “time of day” –which is one of the easiest ones to start with. Here are the steps you might follow:

1. For “time of day,” the time related ideas you are going to be introducing and working with are periods of the day (morning, afternoon, evening and night time), days of the week and hours associated with each of those periods.

2. Start by keeping a “diary” of activities in a day. On a large sheet of paper, you create a set of seven rectangular columns. That sets you up to record each of the days of the week- At the top of each column, enter one day of the week—starting with Sunday at the extreme left and ending with Saturday at the extreme right. For each day, enter an exact date (e.g., Monday March 14). Then divide each column into four segments–with top segment representing morning (e.g., 6AM to noon) the next afternoon (e.g., noon till 6 PM), the next evening (e.g., 6 to 9 PM) and then night (e.g., after 9 PM) (The precise hours can vary so as to best fit your family’s schedule. So if “evening” in your home is better characterized as 7 to 10, that is the period to use.)

3. Each day, when you are doing a particular activity, bring over the diary and say something like, “we are doing homework now, it is 5 o’clock on Monday.” Then point to the appropriate box, say “This is for Monday. Since it is 5 in the afternoon, this is the place we need to put this.” Then enter a word (e.g., homework) and/or a picture (e.g., a sketch of a book).

4. Point to the entry and ask your child to tell you “what it is saying .” If he or she is having difficulty, model the answer (e.g., “This says that it is Monday and at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, we were doing homework”) Then, have your child repeat what you have said.

5. Try to have two to four entries a day. In all cases, enter the information when the activity is going on or has just been completed. Your goal is to get your child to gain a sense of how the activity simultaneously fits into real life and into the diary.

6. If you miss a day, just leave it blank and point it out to your child (e.g., “We did not enter anything on Wednesday –so it is blank. Let’s go to Thursday.”)

7. Gradually transfer the “entry making” to your child so that he or she enters the information independently. However, continue to supply support for as long as needed.

8. Keep each of the weekly diaries. Then after a couple of weeks, take out the sheets you have created and use them to engage in short discussions about the various dates. For example, asking questions such as “Can you find something we did every Monday this month?” or “Name two activities we did in the afternoon on the week of March X?” “Find two things that we did on March 20th—find one for the morning and one for the evening?” Basically your goal is to flexibly shift among ideas so that your child becomes comfortable discussing a range of ideas showing the ways in which our lives are linked to time.

Once you start these mini-discussions, you’ll see that your child is not only learning to become skilled at time concepts, but that the two of you in combination are creating dynamic, interesting and enjoyable conversations.