Skip to content
Surprising Science

Passage of Time Isn’t an Innate Experience in Children

Children may know the words for seconds and hours as early as two, but understanding how long two minutes are versus one hour comes with experience.

Time is a human construct developed to coordinate social and commercial events. As adults, we grow to develop a love-hate relationship, sometimes cursing its quick passing or why it’s not passing faster. We attribute measurements, such as seconds, minutes, and hours, to give meaning to times within our day, and we have a learned sense for how long a second, minute, and hour should feel like. But while children may begin using these time descriptors as early as two or three years old, most don’t know what they mean until they reach the age of eight or nine.

BPS reports that researchers Katharine Tillman and David Barner wanted to explore the study of children’s concept of time. They began by asking children from ages three to six questions, like, “Farmer Brown jumped for a minute. Captain Blue jumped for an hour. Who jumped more?” They also tested durations of seconds, days, weeks, months, and years.

They found by age four, most kids have a better idea of rank with these durations, like a second is less than an hour; an hour is more than a minute; and so on. This proficiency gets better with age. But when five-year-old children were prompted with a question like, “Farmer Brown jumped for three minutes. Captain Brown jumped for two hours. Who jumped more?” they stumbled.

Tillman and Barner wanted to know more about how children developed to learn time, so they gathered a group of children from ages five to seven years of age. The researchers asked them to place different duration descriptors along a horizontal line. The far left being “something very short, like blinking” and the far right being “something very long, like the time from waking up in the morning to going to bed at night.”

They found that before age six or seven, the children struggled with the order or spacing the descriptors properly. The six- and seven-year-olds tended to perform much better.

The study shows that in order to grasp the true meaning of time, the children must experience the concept and the words together in order to develop an understanding.

The researchers write:

“We conclude that associating words with the perception of duration does not come naturally to children, and that early intuitive meanings of time words are instead rooted in relative orderings, which children may infer from their use in speech.”

Read more at BPS.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock


Up Next