Enabling Environments: Let's explore ... time

Reinforce children's dawning sense of time with ideas to organise their day and reflect on their lives, with activities and resources suggested by Diana Lawton.

Time is a complex concept to grasp, even for adults. Through a day, time can seem to drag, or, conversely, the hours can 'fly by'. However, although adults do sometimes view time in this subjective way, we are able to compare this to objective measures, such as the movement of clock hands. Young children don't yet have this ability.

Time really does 'fly' or 'drag' for children, depending on what they are doing. For very young children, time is a one-dimensional concept. Things exist only now. At about the age of three, children are just beginning to view time as a continuum - to understand that things existed before now and things will exist after now.

Adults can support a child's developing understanding of time by offering opportunities for them to talk about and recreate everyday events in their lives. We can help them to use and understand the language of time, and to recall shared past experiences. Opportunities can be provided to observe and talk about changes through time - for example, the changing seasons, or a child's own growth.

Books are also a valuable resource to help children's developing understanding, offering opportunities for questions and discussion. Being aware of how everyday good practice with children helps to support a developing idea of time ensures that this element of a child's learning is being addressed.


Consistent daily routines give children the opportunity to experience time intervals of varying lengths each day, which they can then talk about and compare. Ordinary good parenting begins with the establishment of daily routines that meet the needs of babies. The principles underpinning Birth to Three Matters stress that personal daily routines with a special adult should be built into the nursery day.

As children get older, their needs remain the same, and routines help them to feel secure, as well as providing some predictability to their day. Talking through any changes to routines beforehand helps children to be prepared.

For children, it helps to know what's going to be different, what part of the routine they may miss and what they'll be doing instead. Routines shouldn't dominate; they need to be flexible enough to give active young learners access to long periods of uninterrupted play that flows inside and out. For this reason, practitioners need to give careful thought to what routines are necessary and appropriate.

The beginning of the session

A gradual start to the day allows time for children to be greeted individually, and self-registration adds a simple daily routine that isn't going to take up too much important playing time. The ability to make a plan and carry it out is a powerful tool for a child to have, as it affects what's going to happen next.

In a well-planned nursery environment where children can be certain that what they were doing yesterday will be available today, many children will already know what they want to do when they arrive. For others, it is an opportunity to remind them - for example, 'You were really busy mixing colours in the paint area yesterday. Would you like to do that again this morning?'

This is an appropriate approach to informal planning with young children, and can be adapted to suit individual needs.

During the session

In most nurseries, play areas are organised for children to serve themselves, and there will be free movement in and out. Children organise their own time with help and support from adults. It is now recognised good practice for children to decide when they will have their snack during a natural break in their play.

Adults can help children to plan this into their time by reminding them that snacks are available - for example, 'Would you like to have your snack now before you start something else?' or 'You need to think about having your snack, as we will be tidying up soon.'

A consistent routine that encourages children to serve themselves, clear away and record that they have had their snack offers a simple sequence which helps to mark out time. Helping to prepare healthy snacks involves following a particular sequence of steps that can then be recalled. 'Can you remember what we did first/next?'

End of the session

A gradual winding down of the session, ready for meal times or going home, will prepare children for this transition gently and calmly. Practitioners who have observed how play has been developing for groups and individuals will be in a position to support children in bringing the activities to a satisfactory close. This may be by replacing resources in their designated place, ready for 'tomorrow,' or putting work in progress in a safe place to return to 'after lunch'.

A simple 'closed' sign displayed in each area as it is wound down will inform children that the session is coming to a close. Different settings will have their own routines regarding where children go to prepare for meal times or going home. This is usually into familiar key groups for small group time with their key worker. The important thing is to create a predictable and consistent pattern to these transition times.


The greatest contribution to children's learning lies in adults being available to talk to. Using the common language of time in discussions helps children to become familiar with it and start to use it themselves.

Every day there will be opportunities to encourage children to talk about themselves, their families and other significant people. This will involve references to past, present and future events in their lives. Adults play an important role in helping children to develop ideas about growing up and the changes that occur. Talking about our own personal experiences and recollections, such as 'When I was little...' often leads children to reflect on their own lives and offer ideas and questions making an exchange of views possible.

Recalling shared experiences is an effective way of encouraging children to think about the recent past - 'Do you remember when I came to your house and you showed me your toys?'


Observing seasonal holidays and changes to the weather and living things can contribute to a child's understanding of time passing, as can participating in activities that help to make these different times memorable. Look for signs of spring, observe eggs in an incubator, and mark Easter by rolling hard-boiled eggs down slopes. Experience and compare gales in winter, rain in summer, frozen puddles.

Help the children to notice changes over time using individual profiles and photograph albums, recording special events such as picking strawberries in the summer or building a snowman in the winter.

Encourage the children to collect and talk about objects that are associated with seasonal changes, and repeat walks at different times of the year. Put together a seasonal calendar of changes using photographs.


There are many experiences relating to growth that will help children to explore the passing of time in a meaningful way. Their own babyhood is still a recent memory, and most children love to revisit this time in their lives. A baby-bathing area will become a popular part of continuous provision.

Invite the children to bring in their own photographs for a display, and have regular visits by parents and babies for demonstrations of bathing, dressing, feeding and playing. Photograph the visits to put into albums for revisiting and memory sharing.

Talk about new growth and birds building nests. Observe the life cycles of the frog and butterfly. Plant bulbs and seeds. All these familiar activities support children's growing understanding of time passing.


Children need opportunities to play with adult ideas of time in their role play. Having different kinds of clocks, calendars, stopwatches, digital watches and sand-timers available in role play areas will enable children to become aware that these are tools that adults use to mark off time intervals.

The home area is an important activity space in a nursery setting. Here children can play out familiar events in their lives such as mealtimes, bedtimes, or visits to the shops or doctors, which help them with a growing understanding of the passage of time.

Provide resources that enable different sequences to be recreated. For bedtime, for example, provide pyjamas, dressing gown, slippers, wash bag, water bottle, a teddy bear, night light, child-sized bed and bedtime stories. Make sure there are resources available to see through meal preparation - tins and packets of food, play dough, pans, baking trays, weighing scales, cutters, oven gloves, washing up bowl, cloths and tea towels.


Cameras are now a regular part of nursery equipment, offering the opportunity for adults and children to record daily events in the year. Photographs encourage discussion about the changes that have taken place over time, such as seasonal changes and changes in our own appearance. Photograph a favourite tree over the course of a year to put in a booklet called 'A Year in the Life of Our Oak Tree'.

Put together an album of the outside area over the year and make individual 'All About Me' books. Encourage children to be involved in sorting through photographs and putting them into booklets, albums and their own individual profiles.

Add albums to displays, book areas and provision areas to be shared with other children, parents and practitioners. Personal photographs from home linked to holidays, excursions and special days can be brought into nursery to share. Photographs are increasingly being used in nurseries to record children's learning in sequence, and to make 'learning journey' books. The camera and resulting images are a valuable tool to support a developing understanding of time.


Books and stories can be useful to develop children's understanding of celebrations and events, time, sequence and chronology. They can also echo changes in their own lives and others' and introduce the distant past.

Stories about growing up encourage children to think and talk about themselves and their own special memories, and can be a stimulus for helping children to explore future events, such as moving house or expecting a new brother or sister.

They are especially valuable for developing vocabulary about time such as long ago, before, after andnext, as well as helping children become familiar with the names and meanings of conventional time units like yesterday, tomorrow, morning, afternoon, night, week, weekend. Homemade books using photographs can tell personal stories to reflect back on, for example, 'Sheena's caravan holiday.'


  • Listen carefully to how a child is struggling to make sense of time, and respond sensitively to help them move on.
  • Be available every day to engage in discussion with children, recalling personal and shared experiences.
  • Use familiar and predictable sequences of events to help children mark the passage of time - for example, the pattern of the nursery day.
  • Provide a good selection of books and stories that will help to develop a sense of time.
  • Ensure children have free access on a daily basis to the outdoors, to experience the seasonal year.
  • Help children to become aware that clocks and calendars are tools used to mark off time by supporting role play.


Create a collection of resources that will help develop children's understanding of time. This could include:

  • Fisher Price camera
  • photograph albums
  • different types of time-keeping devices for interactive displays and role play such as digital watches, clocks, kitchen timers, sand timers, metronome
  • calendars and diaries for role play
  • books, stories and rhymes related to time and sequence and changes in the lives of families (see book box)


Change in children's own lives

There's a House Inside My Mummy by Giles Andreae and Vanessa Cabban (Orchard Books) - A tender story of a little boy waiting for his baby brother or sister to arrive.

Once There Were Giants by Martin Waddell and Penny Dale (Walker Books) - As a baby girl grows up and becomes an adult, the 'giants' in her family seem to grow smaller.

Nancy No-Size by Mary Hoffman & Jennifer Northway (Oxford University Press) - Nancy finds that she is neither short enough nor tall enough but, as the middle member of the family, discovers she is special in her own way.

Happy Birthday, Sam by Pat Hutchins (HarperCollins)

You'll Soon Grow into Them, Titch by Pat Hutchins (Picture Puffin)

Time, sequence and chronology

Sunshine and Moonlight by Jan Ormerod (Frances Lincoln) - These companion titles and classic wordless picture books look at the daily routines of a young girl in the morning and at night.

Lucy and Tom's Day by Shirley Hughes (Picture Puffin) - Follows the day of pre-schoolers Lucy and her younger brother Tom.

Peace At Last by Jill Murphy - Mr Bear is tired but can't sleep.

Today is Monday by Eric Carle (Puffin Books) - Based on the children's song 'Today is Monday'. Runner beans, roast beef, fish and ice cream are the fare during the week, until Sunday, when the world's children are invited to come and share a meal.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (Picture Puffin)

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