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Does a Young Child Have Temporal Awareness?

When does a child begin to sense the passage of time?

Key points

  • A child’s time awareness begins long after she gains a sense of before and after.
  • The human biological clock may not dictate a conscious sense of time but it does adjust the body’s functioning according to the public clock.
  • Even a young child’s organs rely on body clock signals for when to accelerate functions and when to dampen them.
 Catherine Mazur
Identical Twins Learning About Time
Source: Catherine Mazur

With this post and with much appreciation of my readers' knowledge, I am hoping for replies of enlightenment on the question of how a child’s reflexive moments separate the before and after and, perhaps, time awareness. The address for replies is whoknowstime [at] gmail.com.

From personal experience and recent literature, I understand that the newborn will cry when hungry and when things do not come when expected (whatever expected means for someone so young). As she grows and passes a few birthdays, there comes a higher level of time awareness; she will not feel time, but she can and does on occasion, long for pleasures to happen—playtime, another birthday, being with grandma and grandpa. As her prefrontal cortex matures she is developing an awareness that will improve throughout childhood. Each moment is a witnessing, an electrochemical process that becomes pigeonholed in a squillion hippocampus cells, where her experiences go to be orderly recorded as her past.

At some age of almost any young child, there comes a cloudy transition from instinct to cognitive thought, about what happened earlier and what could happen later.

When does she first acquire forward and backward temporal reasoning? I am not asking about the conceptual development of time, but rather the notion that there was a yesterday and there will be a tomorrow. Take a 2-year-old, for instance. She has vague notions of now and later and is gaining an understanding of words such as playtime and after bath. Even then, the now can be entwined in knotted confusion for another year or two before the child has a clearer picture of before and after. A three- or four-year-old might say, “I saw my grandma yesterday,” when she saw her grandmother a week ago. Any precision beyond before, now, and later is too abstract a concept for the young child. All abstractions are understood by repeated concrete experiences and time is one of the toughest notions to grasp at almost any age.

Even at 4, the temporal words—before, after, later, in a moment, soon, in the morning—come with a tangled sequential ambiguity. Any understanding of time is minimal. To say we will go to the playground in 10 minutes means anything from right now to never. What are 10 minutes to a 4-year-old? It is the playground, not a clock. In my understanding, after raising two children who in turn are now raising five children, I gather that children build their temporal senses by the routines of their days and by benchmarks in those routines, not by the language of time.

At 5 or 6, when children customarily start school, they learn the days of the week and seasons of the year, and they can tell you when a special day—particularly a birthday—is coming. It’s not before turning around 6 that they begin to be curious about clocks and adult time. Time in the first grade, with extended and compounded routines, then becomes part of their growing awareness of the world around them.

Every human comes with a clock.

So far, this post has revealed my naïve understanding of the child’s development of a sense of time. It comes from my readings of papers on the subject, not from any extensive expert communication. What follows is what I do know from years of research on the human biological clock.

The biological clock hangs in the center of the brain, in the hypothalamus, right next to the pineal gland, which receives information from the retinas of the eyes about the day’s light/dark cycle to produce melatonin. Light on the retina (like sunlight on a silicon solar panel) creates an electrical charge sent to the brain (particularly to the pineal gland) to release melatonin, a chemical that lowers body temperature and induces drowsiness.

The clock in the brain is the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). With its twenty thousand neurons synchronizing internal operations with external cues, it is more of a synchronizer than a clock. Whenever cell function repetitions break away from circadian rhythms — which occasionally happens because of hunger, nourishment needs, anxiety, health, work — the SCN sends an adjustment signal to cells that need to know when to function in harmony with the present time. That is important because, like trains sharing tracks and schedules, the cytoplasm in cells must act in unison to optimally function by building proteins that build and maintain cells and keep the body healthy.

However, the newborn’s clock is almost entirely inert, ready to be set by the family’s schedule, which is likely to be the public schedule that once upon a time was the village clock, tuned to the daily tasks of working, eating, and sleeping. The baby has no sense of time, but the repeated rhythms of light and darkness, and eating and sleeping, are beginning to give her mind a tempo for processing the fluids in her little body. The heart keeps pumping. The hunger comes in waves. The cell proteins develop from cycles coordinated with the brain’s adjustments to circadian rhythms. Though there is no direct perception of time, there will soon be multiple pathways for gaining a conscious distinction between past and future by many forms and many ways of providing information for the brain to regulate cell protein production.

The toddler’s clock is prepared to relay information to organs of the body that rely on signals of when to accelerate functions and when to dampen them: heartbeat, temperature, when to cry for food, and when to have cells secrete melatonin or other hormones for survival. Since the child’s body clock is not yet fully set, it must keep time as if kept by a timepiece with a missing minute hand, relaying time to life-giving organs for proper cell function. Does that get us any closer to the answer to when a child’s reflexive moments bring time awareness?

© 2021 Joseph Mazur

References

Meng Zhang and Judith A. Hudson, “Children’s Understanding of Yesterday and Tomorrow,” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, Volume 170, June 2018, 107-133. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2018.01.010

Roeckelein JE. (2008) History of conceptions and accounts of time and early time perception research. In: Grondin S, ed. Psychology of Time. Bingley, UK: Emerald Press, 1–50.

Wolfe, Jeremy M.; Kluender, Keith R.; Levi, Dennis M.; Bartoshuk, Linda M.; Herz, Rachel S.; Klatzky, Roberta L.; Merfeld, Daniel M. (2018). Sensation & Perception, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018) 139–140.

Joseph Mazur, The Clock Mirage: Our Myth of Measured Time, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020) 179-180.

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