Time Concepts

What Is Time?

An old-fashioned alarm clock.
An old-fashioned alarm clock.

A sense of time is gained gradually during the process of living through timespans marked by events. As children experience the world of people and things, their concept of time becomes integrated into their everyday lives, as well as into their vocabularies.

I’m Going Tomorrow!

Ellen Booth Church

Time and time concepts are at once very concrete and very abstract. Understanding time and developing a full range of time concepts is something that we continue to develop as long as we live. Science and modern technology keep breaking time into smaller and smaller increments. History looks back over longer and longer periods of time. But how do humans develop concepts of time?

It begins by having a memory of events in our lives that mark the passage of time, such as waking up, eating a meal, the rising and setting of the sun. We must have a memory of these events – the past – and consider that they might occur again before we can begin to understand now and the future. We begin to have some sense of order in the activities that occur and serve as markers of time’s passage. We start to anticipate what happens next.

Children who do not yet demonstrate anticipation of the major events of their day may not be ready to fully use a calendar system, or even an anticipation calendar. They need to have a daily schedule that is predictable and routine events that are predictable in order to develop a sense of anticipation. 

Children who are deafblind need to learn basic names for time concepts such as “past”, “now”, and “future” as soon as possible. These may be the first time concepts you teach using a word or sign when you work with the child. Words that help to sequence events like “now”, “next”, “and then”, or “finished” help name the passage of time and can become meaningful to a child during a calendar discussion or while carrying out a routine activity. Using tactile dividers to mark segments of time also help the child who is deafblind or visually and multiply impaired to order events.

As the child develops more concepts referring to segments of the day, words such as  “morning”, “afternoon”, “evening”, and” night” begin to take on meaning. Understanding that each day is not the same as the one before also becomes important. Words that like “yesterday”, “today” and “tomorrow” lead to learning the days of the week. Then there are seasons which are made up of months, and so it continues.

When we think about all of the ways we use a calendar, we probably consider its main function as a tool to mark time – although, one could argue that things like to-do lists, and recipes are kinds of calendars, too, as they help us organize our actions over time.

We often think of calendars as a way to keep track of the present and the future – important meetings and appointments, important dates – birthdays, anniversaries – things that are coming up that you need to keep track of so you don’t forget. However, if we think about our calendars with regard to the past….they also serve to mark time that is behind us. 

Timeline calendar on the wall: a 120-year calendar on red butcher paper that runs the length of a school hallway; a legend is at the calendar's head
Timeline calendar on the wall: a 120-year calendar on red butcher paper that runs the length of a school hallway; a legend is at the calendar’s head. This shows the lives of three students.
Another way to teach time concepts is as a continuum – or, Timeline – with the present moment as our starting point. From here you can move forward (into the future), or back (into the past). The picture to the left shows a timeline calendar that was created by three students and their teacher, at TSBVI. As it moves backward, into the past, it illustrates things like their birthdates, their parents, and grandparents birthdates, important moments in history, life lines of interesting people, when important inventions where introduced, etc. Timelines are another type of time-keeping device and can be very meaningful to children who are deafblind if they are related to their own life.
We have a memory bank of our life’s history, and we mark that history in a sequence of hours, days, or years. When we think of it as our life’s scrapbook, all of the memories in that book are linked to other memories, and in relation to the sequence in which they happened. This is what keeps us grounded in time. If we didn’t have a conceptual foundation of how to organize these events (i.e. a calendar) we would be kind of lost in space and time…
A Concept of Time:   We need a way to label and keep track of past, present, and future, i.e. “yesterday”, “now”, “tomorrow” in our minds. We need to be able to think about and recall or anticipate events.
A Workable Timepiece:  We need a physical thing we can use to mark time with: a wrist watch, wall calendar, day planner, schedule, timeline, agenda, PDA, etc.
Communication Form:   A calendar provides a static communication form related to time and the events we participate in that can be referred back to or consult about current and future events.

*** Remember:  It is very important that we recognize the calendar, not only as a tool associated with time (a timepiece), but also as a literacy tool: a way to share about things, actions, and people.

These events and/or things that we label, enable our students to have topics for conversation.  When we label an event we are also labeling an event in that sequence of time; we’re putting pictures and notes into the child’s scrapbook.

Having the ability to refer to events that have or will happen, allows the child to make comments about events, ask for an activity to take place or reject it, and to reflect on the details of the event or activity and the people, places and things that  are part of that event or activity. These basic functions of communication are all aided by the use of a calendar system and other time pieces.


Ages & Stages: How Children Develop a Sense of Time, Scholastics, Inc. website.

Meng Zhang* and Judith A. Hudson, 2018. The Development of Temporal Concepts: Linguistic Factors and Cognitive Processes, Frontiers in Psychology website.


Matt and Jarvis at the Calendar

In this video we see Matt and his student, Jarvis talking about the events of the day and what will be happening. Jarvis uses a monthly calendar in combination with a weekly calendar with daily expansion strips. Jarvis has a good time concepts.