How do children develop a sense of time?

    • Topic: Cognitive Development

    • Location: Discovery Center

    Infants as young as 6 months old are able to tell the difference between two distinct durations of time. However, the ability to read a clock or judge how long it takes to get somewhere does not develop until much later in childhood. This study seeks to understand the relationship between children’s non-symbolic (e.g. shorter, longer) and symbolic (e.g. minutes, hours) understanding of time.

    In this study, we will ask children (ages 6 to 8 years) to complete two activities. In the first activity, children will be asked to discriminate between two different lengths of time. They will hear two animals each play a musical instrument and will then be asked to determine which animal played their instrument for a longer period of time. In the second activity, children will complete a brief questionnaire that explores their understanding of time. During this time, children may be asked to give the time from a clock or press a key on a keyboard for a certain length of time. Parents will also be asked to complete a brief survey that explores what they think their child knows about time.

    We predict that children who are more precise in the formal timing activity will be more accurate on the time discrimination task. That is, children who have a more established formal understanding of time may also be able to provide more precise time estimates.

    The results of this work will help us learn how children’s understanding of time develops, and how they use their knowledge and understanding of time in other tasks.

        » Learning about time: Knowledge of formal timing symbols is related to individual differences in temporal precision

    Hamamouche, K., & Cordes, S. (2019). Learning about time: Knowledge of formal timing symbols is related to individual differences in temporal precision. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, doi:

    This research is conducted in Living Laboratory at the Museum of Science by researchers at the Infant & Child Cognition Lab at Boston College

        » Infant and Child Cognition Lab at Boston College

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Message Tube Race

    On the 2nd floor of the Discovery Center, explore the message tube activity with your child. Before sending the capsule, ask your child to estimate how long s/he thinks it will take to reach the other side of the room. Then, as your child sends the tube, count together how many seconds it takes to reach the other side. How close was your child’s time estimate to the actual time the message tube took to travel across the room?

    Now, ask your child if s/he thinks s/he can cross the room in the same amount of time the message tube took to travel. Is your child’s first instinct to move slowly or quickly across the room? Encourage your child to count the number of seconds out loud as s/he moves across the room. Does this change how quickly s/he tries to move?

    Activities to Try at Home

    Getting Ready Races

    While helping your child get ready in the morning, ask him or her to estimate how long s/he thinks certain tasks (e.g. brushing teeth, getting dressed) will take. Use a timer or your phone to record how long each action actually takes, and compare your guesses to the actual times! Try this activity with shorter actions such as putting on and tying shoes, as well as with longer actions such as taking a bath. How close are your child’s estimates for the shorter actions? For the longer actions?

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