Your toddler’s understanding of space and time

The tortoise and the hare is a classic tale (of classic characters with tails!) and it’s designed to teach very young children important lessons about hard work, persistence, and napping, but there are a couple of reasons why Baby might not be ready to fully understand it yet. The first problem is that there’s a good chance that Baby, like so many children their age, has the kind of need for speed that means that they isn’t ready to sit still and listen for long enough to get through the story. The other reason why the tortoise and the hare might go over better with Baby in a few months, or even years, is that they are still warming up for the marathon – not a sprint – that is their understanding of the concepts of space and time.

How does children’s sense of space and time develop?

Children’s understanding of the relationship between time and distance develops as they grow older. A classic study of children at different ages who were asked questions about the distance, speed, and travel time of a group of toy trains noted that the youngest children included in the study, who were 5 years old, rated the trains that moved the farthest away from them as the trains that went the farthest, but also the train that went the fastest, and the trains that took the longest time to reach their final destinations.

This was supported by a 1994 study, that found that, when looking at the relationship between time, distance, and speed, the understanding that took the longest for children to develop was the one between speed and time – specifically, the fact that moving at a faster speed can make moving a certain distance take less time. And more recently, a 2010 paper from Greece asserts that, for young children, it was possible to talk about distance without talking about time, but it wasn’t possible to talk about time without talking about distance.

Of course, Baby doesn’t need to understand the relationship between time, distance, and speed before they can appreciate pictures of fuzzy bunny rabbits and grumpy tortoises, and they doesn’t need to be able to picture the race in order to appreciate the sound of your voice, but they might not fully understand the message of the story until they're a little further along in their learning-by-observing-the-world about basic physics.

How can I encourage Baby’s developing sense of time and space?

Baby’s understanding of spatial concepts like what’s bigger, what’s smaller, and how things can fit into each other, will mostly develop on their own as they explore the world around them, especially through free-play. Pouring water into different containers when playing in the bath can help reinforce ideas about size, and buckets, stacking toys, and other objects that can fit together in different ways are also good ways to illustrate this idea.

When it comes to time, Baby isn’t really ready for the nitty-gritty of hours, minutes, or seconds, which they doesn’t have any context for. Instead, relative time concepts like “before” and “after” are ideas that they will be able to understand better. This is especially true if your toddler’s days follow fairly predictable routines. If dinner comes at the same time every day, “after dinner” will mean something pretty specific to your little one.

  • Daniel Casasanto, Olga Fotakopoulou, Lera Boroditsky. “Space and Time in the Child’s Mind: Evidence for a Cross-Dimensional Asymmetry.” Cognitive Science. 34(3): 387. Web. 2010.
  • Fumiko Matsuda. “Concepts about Interrelations among Duration, Distance, and Speed in Young Children.” International Journal of Behavioral Development. 17(3). Web. September 1994.
  • Susan A. Miller, Ellen Booth Church, Carla Poole. “Ages & Stages: How Children Develop a Sense of Time.” Scholastic. Scholastic Inc. Web.
  • Robert S. Siegler, D. Dean Richards. “Development of Time, Speed, and Distance Concepts.” Developmental Psychology. 15(3): 288-298. Web. 1979.
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