Kids Don’t Really Know What They’re Talking About When They Talk About Time

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Photo: Ariel Skelley/Corbis

Put a little kid in time-out for five minutes and you may as well be sentencing them to hours of solitude as far as they know — this is something you likely understand if you’ve ever had or been a kid in time-out. Recently, a pair of researchers at the University of California at San Diego decided to investigate just how much young children are able to comprehend about the duration of hours, minutes, and seconds. The answer: until age 7, not much.

The results of their study were published online last month in Cognitive Psychology, and Christian Jarrett of the British Psychology Society recently wrote about the findings. By age 4, kids start to get the gist; they know that an hour is longer than a minute, which is longer than a second, for example. But until about age 7, they’re still easily tripped up when asked to differentiate between, say, minutes and hours — even if they know the definition of a minute or an hour.

Jarrett writes:

Take, for example, the question “Farmer Brown jumped for three minutes. Captain Brown jumped for two hours. Who jumped more?” As adults, we aren’t thrown by the minutes outnumbering the hours by three to two, because we know that an hour feels much longer, and is by definition 60 times longer. However, even five-year-olds, who know well the principle that an hour is longer than a minute, were thrown by these kinds of comparisons. This suggests they don’t yet have a very good understanding of the formal definitions of duration words, nor what the different durations feel like.

It’s a similar learning pattern to the one kids exhibit with other abstract concepts, like colors or emotions, which many of them start to pick up with more accuracy by preschool age. So this likely suggests, the researchers say, that formal instruction concerning the way days are divided into hours and hours into minutes is a big help to young children trying to grasp what on earth adults are talking about when they talk about time. Though, to be fair, time perception is a fluid and confusing concept to adults, too. For instance, a sunny Sunday afternoon spent in the park may pass by in what feels like minutes, whereas the following day’s afternoon spent indoors and in front of a computer screen feels like hours by comparison. Or so I’ve heard.