How Many Days to Forever? Activities to Develop the Concept of Time

Young children have a tenuous understanding of time full of misconceptions and incomplete notions.  Tomorrow, next week, next year, and forever all seem equally distant.  In my previous post “Rethinking Calendar Time“, I explored the idea that the traditional way calendar is presented in preschool does not adequately help the students understand the concept of time.  As promised, here is a list of activities that do help preschool children develop this difficult concept and learn the vocabulary needed to talk about time.

1. Activities Can Follow a Predictable Sequence: This is one of the earliest time concepts that children develop.   If you already have a schedule in place for your classroom that follows a regular sequence, then you are well on your way. Stick to it as much as you can.  Help the children internalize the schedule by talking about it as it happens.  Starting when the children are about three, it is also helpful to display your schedule using pictures.  While children can’t understand that they will eat lunch at 12:00 they can understand that they will eat lunch after they go to music.

Songs, fingerplays, and rhymes also help children learn that events Mom&Babyfollow a predictable sequence.  Even infants can anticipate the tickle or kiss that comes at the end of a rhyme.  If you want to assess if they understand the sequence, try doing it wrong.  They will let you know you’ve changed it.

Older preschoolers can sequence pictures of familiar events.  This is an important precursor to retelling stories.  When introducing this concept it can be helpful to have the children act out the activity first.  Putting on shoes and socks is a good example.  After they act it out, have them sequence pictures of the same activity, then move on to other sequence cards they have not acted out.   It can be tricky to find pictures that unambiguously depict the intended activity. If a child puts events in a different order be sure you have them describe what is happening in each picture, as they may think the picture describes something different than you do.  Be careful that the children have plenty of experience with the event.  Having children who live in south Texas sequence pictures of building a snowman may have very mixed results!  Also remember that routines at home. such as brushing teeth, don’t always follow the same sequence. Fewer events are easier to sequence than more events.  Events that happen in rapid succession are easier than events that are spread out over time such as a flower growing,

2, Before, After, First, Last, and Next: These words can describe both time and space.  “Your turn is next.”  “The bear is next to the dog.”  We need to take the time to develop both concepts. One of the easiest ways is use these words when you are talking with the children.  “We will take a nap before we go outside.”  “After you put the blocks away, what do you want to play with next?”

Games are also a good way to develop these concepts while at the same time 3blockTwrpracticing following directions.  One game involves giving the children directions on how to build a tower in the block center or using colored blocks.  “First put a red block.  Next put a purple block.  Last put a blue block.”  Decide how many directions to give at once depending on the ability of the children.   You can also have the children build a tower and describe how they did it using the same words.  Another game uses a set of items to follow given directions.  Pick up the ball after you sit down.  If you have multiple sets, more than one child can go at a time.  Once the children are able to play the game, have a helper give directions.

3, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Morning circle time is a great time to talk about what is going to happen in school that day.  Start by sharing just one special activity such as a project or birthday celebration.  Write it down for the students to see.

Refer back to what you wrote just before and/or after the event takes place.  Once the children have some practice with “today” you can add “yesterday”.  When possible, use the same event you used for “today” and move it to yesterday (rewritten in correct grammar).  After some time add “tomorrow” to the routine.

Starting at about four, children learn that certain events happen on certain days.  You can add the days of the week to your signs to help familiarize the children with the names.  Yesterday was Sunday.  We did not come to school

You can make a class newspaper called “Yesterday’s News”.  When parents drop their child off they write a sentence on a large chart or sheet of bulletin board paper describing something they did yesterday.  This would be especially helpful for classes that don’t meet every day.  During circle time children could share what they wrote.The same thing could be done with tomorrow’s news.

Taking pictures of class activities and displaying them on a wall or in a book gives a way to talk about past shared experiences. By talking about the pictures children have opportunities to hear and use words to describe time.

4. Measuring Time: Starting at about four, children learn that time can be measured. Children need practice measuring time with non-standard units.  You can count or say the alphabet to time how long a particular activity takes.  Have them do it more than once and decide if they were faster or slower.

They may hear the terms second, minute, or hours without any concept of what these terms mean.  Show them a variety of clocks, including both analog and digital,and explain how they are used to measure time.  Challenge them to jump in place for one minute.  They will be surprised how long that is.  A fun activity to have them do at home is write down everything they do in one hour. Its always a lot more than they think it will be.TimeChain

A linear representation of days, such as a paper chain, is easier for the children to understand than the calendar.  To count down the days until a special event, have the class make a chain with one link for each day.  You can remove a link each morning and count how many more days until the event.

Summing It All Up: Time is an important concept and we need to be sure to include activities that help the children understand the concept  beyond just memorizing the days of the week and months of the year. As they move toward elementary school they begin to develop an understanding that time can be long or short, in the future or in the past, in a moment or forever. There are many ways to do this that are more developmentally appropriate than the traditional calendar time that many preschool classrooms have.  I challenge you to look at your own program and be intentional about the time activities that you include.

Leave a Comment: I would love for you to share in the comments the ways you have helped your students understand the concept of time.

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