Even in preschools we watch children go up to a calendar and correctly point to the day of the week. “Today is Monday,” Francesca announces to her classmates. Could she also tell us if Monday comes before or after Tuesday? Paradoxically, the answer is “yes.” Tuesday comes before the following Monday as time moves to the future but it comes after the previous Monday if you refer to the previous week. And thus represents the complexity of cyclic time.
To deal with cyclic time the child needs to add the idea of direction of time, whether you are looking forward or looking backward. There is also the confusion of using the same word for both the future and the past season. And there is just the basic intuition that time moves only forward, like when you are running or walking from here to there … it takes “time.” None of these complexities are involved when a child is asked, “When does it snow?” They just remember the word “winter” goes with the word “snow.” The difficulty comes when children want to make a comparison or a calculation. “Do we have many more weeks left before Spring comes?” A season is longer than one week, but shorter than a year. A season could be close to ending or just beginning. And what could “same time next year” possibly mean to a young child? “Same” and “next” refer to opposite types of relations.
We may enjoy talking with children about fall, winter, summer and spring, and asking them what season it is currently, but we also should find reasons to talk about last winter and next winter. This understanding of recurrence takes a bit more thinking. And we could use circular graphics as we talk about the seasons instead of a linear graphic such as a calendar. Don’t get discouraged if your child or student does not understand. It takes time to understand time.
Friedman, W.J. The Development of Children’s Understanding of Cyclic Aspects of Time. Child Development, 1977, 48, 1593 – 1599.
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