I have troubles explaining the concept of past / future to my son. He certainly has some idea of time by now, but can't express it correctly. He has picked up the word "tomorrow" and uses it for both future and past. A typical conversation goes like this:

Kid: tomorrow I had carrots for lunch.

Me: Not tomorrow, yesterday. Tomorrow hasn't happened yet.

Kid: Yes it happened. I went to school tomorrow and I had carrots for lunch.

This is where I get stuck, insisting that tomorrow is going to happen the next day, that you have to go to bed before tomorrow comes, etc. I have also tried to explain this using a calendar, but admittedly that was more boring than educational.

Are there better ways?

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    This does not seem like a time-understanding problem. This is more of a vocabulary problem, that's all. This is good because it's a lot easier to teach proper vocabulary than it is a mind-boggling concept like time...
    – corsiKa
    Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 19:22

4 Answers 4


Did you include trying to teach him "Yesterday"? Sometimes concepts like this are better taught through contrast. So I would suggest comparing what "yesterday" is with what "today" is and what "tomorrow" is. And I would also suggest not to worry too much about it. This is the way kids learn. they make up theories about the world around them and test them out, as they see they do not work, they refine them and auto-correct (now that I think about it, this is the way science learns). Your patient, gentle recognition that what he said is not exactly right is all he will need. Most likely, he will figure it out in time.

For my oldest, all I had to do was explain that tomorrow is the day that is going to come after we go to sleep. My second child was diagnosed with a fairly severe form of autism that made it hard for him to learn to speak. For three weeks we had a schedule of what shirt color he was going to wear, and each day we would do the exercise "yesterday you wore red, today you wear orange, tomorrow you wear yellow". The next day he would say "look daddy, tomorrow I wear yellow", and I would reply "no, today you wear yellow, yesterday you wore orange, tomorrow you will wear green". After three weeks of this, daily, he finally caught on.

But my main suggestion is to do it with contrast. People think that the best teaching tools are visuals, but actually "compare and contrast" is the most effective. I once sat in a presentation by the Dean of Teaching from a major university where he outlined how his research had shown that, contrary to his expectations, "compare and contrast" was the more effective tool. This actually made sense to me as our brains are basically a "compare and contrast" machine, so that learning method goes right to how our brain works. I wish I could remember his name or the name of his university so I could give you a link to his research.

  • Thanks! To answer your question, yes, yesterday is what I'm trying to teach him now. He got tomorrow pretty much on his own (with no effort from my side at least), but today and yesterday apparently need some effort to get straight. Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 15:47
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    You are most welcome. I'd suggest you use the fact that he knows "tomorrow" as an anchor in your compare and contrast. Compare the other two concepts with the one he already has. But my guess is that he will get it in time, even if you put no special effort into it. Most kids just learn language by osmosis and trial-an-error.
    – user16557
    Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 15:50
  • I'm sure he will, I just want to help him where I can. I'll certainly try your suggestions. Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 16:03

I've had students who could not get the concept. We played hide the button. "Here is the button (whatever). I will hide the button and then we will look for it."

Show the button. "The button is here now in my/your hand." Set a timer."I will hide the button in one minute."Soon I will hide the button when the timer goes off." Timer goes off, you hide the button. "The button has been hidden. I already hid the button. Do you know where it is? I do, because I hid the button a minute ago." Then you help your child look. "We are looking for the button that I hid a few moments ago." Find the button. "You found the button that I hid, good for you." Repeat a few times and make it fun. Then before bed/ time to go home, do it again. "I am going to hide the button and when you wake up/come back tomorrow, we will look for it." In the morning, "Let's look for the button that I hid last night. Last night is another way to say yesterday. You can figure out other variations and make it fun. Do not be upset with errors. Just matter-of-factly correct them and try again.

Make a schedule/calendar. Draw/use pictures of things you did and things you will do. Monday -- eggs for breakfast, played on the swing, paint(ed) a picture of our house. Talk about what you will do today. Talk about what you will do after lunch/or dinner. Talk about what you will do tomorrow. Tuesday, visit Grandma, go shopping, bake cookies. Talk about the day, what you will do. What did we do yesterday? "See this is the picture you painted yesterday. When did you paint it?"

Just keep up the calendar and use the language. It will come!

  • 2
    Yup. Don't sweat it is right. Just keep using examples of yesterday and tomorrow and the child will figure it out.
    – MaxW
    Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 16:29
  • 2
    We actually already have a timer (a cheap alarm clock my son picke up in Ikea), but his idea of playing with it was to set the alarm within a few minutes from now and put the clock near my (or my wife's) ear, so we took the batteries out. I'll try to put it to good use now ;) Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 16:33
  • @MaxW I'm certainly not sweating it right now, only correcting mistakes every time we speak. I'm just feeling like I'm not doing enough. Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 16:38
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    @DmitryGrigoryev All good parents feel that way. Just talk constantly. Involve your child in living. Give a commentary of the things you do and then ask what you are doing. It doesn't have to be a special time. "I am making eggs for breakfast. I am breaking them into the bowl. I am using the fork to beat them. The pan is hot. I am pouring the eggs. The eggs are cooking! " You add in the language you want to work on. In/out. Hot/cold. Big/little. Now/later/next/before. "What did I make for dinner yesterday/last night?"
    – WRX
    Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 17:03

I think "tomorrow" is related to names of days of the week (Monday, Tuesday, etc.), and a calendar. My parents keep a (paper) calendar in the kitchen, I can see the days being crossed off one by one, so "today" moves from the beginning to the end of the month.

The (names of) the days of the week are worth knowing because of the weekly schedule: e.g. work on Monday, house-cleaning on Tuesday, playgroup on Wednesday, shopping on Thursday, etc. If you know that today is Wednesday then you can say that Tuesday is "yesterday". If you're not sure that "yesterday" is being used correctly, you can ask "do you mean Tuesday?" and point to the calendar.

Another useful time-keeping device is an analog kitchen clock with a sweeping second hand. You can see how the time changes from 1 to 2 to 3 and so on, and see that if it's 2 now then it used to be 1 and is going to be 3.

It's also useful to know the names of the parts of the day: dawn, breakfast-time, morning, lunch-time, afternoon, supper-time, evening, night-time. Correlate that with activities (e.g. "have a bath after supper and before bed").

Lastly, we have grammar. Statements like "I went tomorrow" and "I will go yesterday" are ungrammatical: they sound wrong to an adult. I think that (young) children are wired to learn or "soak up" grammar by hearing it spoken. If you hear "I went tomorrow" and you know (from the context) what the correct statement is, you can teach it just by repeating the correct statement with a tiny emphasis (e.g. say "I went yesterday" or "I will go tomorrow") without explaining it in depth each time.


Adding on to ChrisW...

First, children will learn the difference between present time (NOW) and some other time. Then, they will learn past vs. future.
At this point, it is common for every past event to become labelled as YESTERDAY, and every future event to be TOMORROW, regardless of how long in the past or future. Then, they work on learning events, like summer, holidays, birthdays, Christmas, and such. At this point, they may remember something happened before their last birthday.
Learning the vocabulary comes after learning the concepts.
By time they are in Kindergarten, they should understand the concept of (not necessarily know the words for): Day, week, month, year, annual events, holidays, past, present, and future.

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