Young children’s concept of time and its importance in learning


Time is a complex concept to explain, and even more so to define. The classical definition differentiates between physical time, as a phenomenon of physical science, and human time, which allows ordering the sequence of events, establishing a past, a present and a future.

The complexity of time is not only given in the definition, but also in its learning. The reference discipline for learning human time is history. And although all living beings have temporary experiences, only human beings give meaning to becoming.

On these meanings we build our way of understanding existence, and we transmit to the new generations experiences and knowledge of the present that are based on the past.

Little children and time

Our research reveals that boys and girls have, from early childhood, a clear perception of time , but different from that of adults.

In Greek mythology there are three divinities to characterize time: Kronos, chronological, quantitative time and linear organization; Kairós the time of the moment, also synonymous with historical time that allows giving meaning to the inexorable passage of time; and Aion, the time of eternal return, incalculable and circular, which represents the passage from life to death and from death to life.

In children’s aionic time

In contemporary Western culture, only the first two have arrived, with aionic time being part of a more contemplative and meditative version of life that we rarely experience.

But it is precisely the latter that is felt and perceived by the youngest children (0-3 years). They are aware of existence, but from a perception of immobility typical of other living beings. Adults try to get them out of it by giving them guidelines, rhythms, customs and schedules.

As they grow, children are assuming chronological time, marked by the clock, the rush, the organized moments. Although they always resist and focus on living in the present moment (from the age of 4-5). How many times have we observed how children are able to forget about the time, hunger and cold when they are immersed in a game or bathing in the sea. And what envy generates us adults this ability to live in the present!

Learning time

Classical pedagogy considers that the learning of history and geography is too complex for childhood, and generally there are no teachings in the infant stage aimed at this concept.

However, many studies and new didactic approaches show how children, from the first three years of life, can not only learn cultural and social contents of history and geography, but also that time and space are essential categories for their cognitive, social and affective development.

A springboard to get on

Social matters have always been associated with the memorization of events, dates and complex concepts set in specific places and territories and subject to change over time. Historical time is usually presented in school classrooms as a progressive and evolutionary line that starts from the invention of writing, its oldest historian being the Greek Herodotus, and even contemplating the previous stages, known as prehistory or protohistory.

However, social matters are much more than a generalized simplification of the complexity of the past and are a launching pad for learning to orient oneself in time and location in space from an early age.

For this, the focus of history learning in early childhood should be on procedures: the orientation of time (present, past and future), the position (before, after, now), its rhythm and frequency (often, rarely, never), and the speeds of time, which can be objective (it has happened very slowly), or subjective (it has happened to me very quickly).

The didactics of time

Although at first they do not seem to be related, these basic learnings affect the exercise of graphomotor skills and graphism: learning to read, write and calculate, for example from the control of laterality -from right to left- or organization of objects on paper –proportion, shapes, dimensions–.

They also help to create abstract thought: sequential and causal organization, and the ability to relate, associate, compare ideas to imagine and create new ones.

Didactic activities that allow the development of specific intellectual operations have benefits in temporal orientation and spatial location. In addition, they get used to abstract thinking as we introduce historical and cultural content into their learning.

Rhythms, durations and orientation

For example, we talk about activities that allow us to understand the rhythms (it goes very fast!), the sequence (one thing after the other), the duration (it has been a long time!) and the orientation or temporal arrangement (before, during , later), that favors solving the egocentrism and infantile syncretism.

These simple lessons can be articulated progressively, and from repetition in various didactic activities, so that the little ones build an increasingly complex conception of time. In this way we can create the solid foundations for the historical and geographical learning of the successive stages.

Targeted Temporal Abilities

Both in the current curriculum of early childhood education and in the previous one, it is indicated that infants have to work on numerous temporal skills to structure temporal thinking. However, the ones that end up dominating in the classroom are mostly proposals of a free nature, since the prevailing pedagogy suggests that natural development can only be achieved from the intuitive.

We are in favor of experimental laboratories, combined with self-directed activities and based on flexible didactic proposals, based on constant observation. This allows them a deeper temporal development and better prepares them for their future learning.

Author Bios: Joan Callarisa More is a Professor of Didactics of Social Sciences at the University of Vic – Central University of Catalonia, Ilaria Bellatti is a PhD Assistant Professor, Didactics of Social Sciences at the University of Barcelona and Judit Sabido-Codina is a Professor Doctor in Didactics of the Social Sciences also at the University of Vic – Central University of Catalonia