My question stems from an article I read, which says

Parents are presenting a clear choice for the child. ... For example, “If you sit on the steps, it will be for 10 min. If you do not sit on the steps, you will have to stay in the house for the rest of the day, three more hours. Ten minutes is shorter than 3 h.” With younger children, some parents have drawn timelines for the child to illustrate, for example, how 10 min is shorter than 3 h.

And my question is, how do I illustrate that?

I've also seen that a 4 year old I know cannot grasp what 1 hour (or any amount of time for that matter) means for him. Yes, the hour hand moves from one number to another, but how long does it take to do that? Even adults sometimes lose track of time, and 1 hour may sometimes seem much longer or much shorter, but we have a basic understanding or expectation of what 1 hour feels like. We wouldn't look at the clock to see if 1 hour has passed yet, after just 2 minutes.

At what age will a child get a basic sense of how much time has passed or is yet to pass? How can parents help the child understand?

  • As they say, time is relative.
    – user20343
    Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 18:36

5 Answers 5


A digital timer should help here.

Especially before comparative time outs are given, demonstrate time sequences. Show them, for example, what 20 seconds is. Ask which do they think is longer, one minute - or - how long it takes to sing "Happy Birthday to You" (it takes about 20 seconds) - or - how long it takes to sing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" (~30 sec. if you don't rush.) Start the timer, then sing the songs. So a minute is how long it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" three times. You can make a comparison with raisins; one raisin for each happy birthday song. This should give them a relative idea of a minute.

When they have that concept down, explain five minutes (15 raisins.) If they have a favorite show that lasts 30 minutes, that's an example for them of half an hour (90 raisins.) Three hours is probably more raisins than you want to count out, but if someone is going to say something like that to a child, they should be willing to count the raisins (imo.)

You might make time stretch out longer if you use m&ms. If you can only eat an m&m every minute, ten minutes is going to seem like an eternity. Three hours would seem like several eternities!

  • 1
    With children that can count to ten, I have had great luck doing this with an analog clock.
    – coteyr
    Commented Jul 17, 2018 at 4:14

Simply Put, length of time means virtually nothing to very young children, but they do understand when certain things usually happen, You have to use time in relation to something else, so a child (3-4+) should understand "until dinner time" because they understand when they get hungry, same principle for "when its bed time."

The only way to effectively get them to understand short periods of time when it comes to punishments at least, is to provide a location say a step, if they are being punished they sit (hopefully) quietly on the step for 10 minutes. if the punishment requires more than that then use a different location, and that is where the "long" punishments happen, that way they should learn, over repeated offenses that staying quiet on the step should only take a short time

The second Paragraph is only for 4+ on average, any younger and it all falls apart with the screaming!

With my sisters kids they are 5 and 6 and they still don't really understand the importance of time when it comes to certain things, they know a punishment is a set amount of time and they accept that, they know their favorite shows come on in half an hour and they are ok with that, because these are simple predictable facts, they start to struggle as soon as any vagueness comes into things or they get really excited about something.

They also lose clarity of time when its more than tomorrow


First, they have to be old enough. Plain and simple. Too young and it just won't matter your just being "mean".

That said, once they can count to ten or so, I use a cheap analog clock.

What they really need is something that they want to do, that they can't do too frequently.

Start small. You can eat one M&M every 15 seconds. Then show them how to count that on a clock. When the second-hand moves around to the right places give them the candy.

Next, in the same session (but don't wait too long you are filling them up with sugar after all), tell them that now, they can have 4 M&Ms a minute, and show them how to count that on a clock.

After a few mins. Go with you can have 15 M&Ms every 15 mins. And show them how to count that. You're going to want to have something else for them to do that is not totally boring, but not as much fun as eating too much candy.

The same day, go with you can have a "handful" of M&Ms every hour. Make sure your the one picking the handful, and expect them to miss a few hours, though some kids are right on the nose with it.

Finally, the same day, start tieing events to time. Bed is at 8. Dinner is at 6. And so on. This won't help with them "feeling" time. But it will help the next day.

On day two, keep up with the handful of M&Ms every hour, but point out how many hours are between common events. Breakfast to Lunch, Lunch to Nap.

It will take a few days, but this works very well to help them understand the passing of time.

If they can count to 100, then you can also work in 1-Mississippi, 2-Mississippi, 3-Mississippi .... 60-Mississippi. 1 Minute, 1 Mississippi, 2 -Mississippi. Just don't be surprised when they start counting time like this and you say "we need to leave the park in 15 minutes, and they start with 1-Mississippi", or wose "It's just a 10 min. drive"


It’s best to describe units of time in an almost primeval way to young children, because they are basically cave people (lol), such as:

  • “when the sun has set”
  • “when the sun is at noon, the highest in the sky; or when shadows are shortest”
  • when the sun has moved one hand is an hour” (cover the sun with one hand, and lion up at it, then take your other hand, and stretch it wide — when it has moved the width of an outspread hand, it is about an hour)
  • “when the tree’s shadow has moved X far”


  • “after breakfast”
  • “after lunch”
  • “halfway between lunch and dinner”
  • “the time it takes to drive from home to Target” (or whatever takes 10 minutes”
  • “the time it takes to walk around the house” (one minute)

Kids are great observers of the natural world: its best to try and relate abstractions, like time, to it.


I am a nanny for a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old. I bring them to school in the morning, I have to get them dressed, fed, washed, go pipi and cycle to school in less than 1 hour.

It all comes down to timing.

When I first started the 3-year-old had just turned 3, so timing meant nothing to her. The 6-year-old had learned to count, so the timing worked a little bit.

I have a routine going. I come in and tell the 3-yr-old who's normally sitting at the breakfast table that she has 15 mins to finish her breakfast. I go to the 6-yr-olds room and tell him, 2 mins to get up. I tell them every passing minute exactly how much time they have for their given task.

They figured out fast that if they got through their tasks quickly they could play by themselves!

They both understand that when it's a boring task like brushing your teeth 2 minutes lasts forever, but when it's a fun task like playing 2 minutes is way too short.

The most important thing I do is when the times up I start counting from 20 to 0 and if I say 0 two things happen:

1) They don't get their green sticker. (Reward system for good behaviour)

2) I finish the task for them. Children want to do things by themselves, taking the control from them is the worst punishment in their eyes. I only had to do it a couple of times before each child understood the consequence of 0.

The 3-yr-old now mimics me when I tell her 3 minutes and I show 3 fingers, she'll say back "this many minutes?" The 6-yr-old has started to understand seconds when the minute is up, he shows me a half a finger, to indicate a half a minute. It's very cute.

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