Many kids are overwhelmed by the prospect of fitting everything they have and want to do into the few short hours after school. Between homework, activities, and just time to play, there’s a lot to do. But even though most kids don’t have the cognitive skills to organize their schedules independently until middle school, you can start teaching them how to plan and prioritize their time now. “When we teach children strategies for time management from an early age, they internalize them, which sets them up for lifelong success,” says Lynn Meltzer, Ph.D., president of the Research Institute for Learning and Development, a nonprofit research and educational organization.
Wondering how the heck to begin? No worries. Teachers shared their tips on the essential concepts and lessons to teach, age by age, so you can make this school year’s schedule more manageable, successful, and a whole lot more fun for everyone!

Time Management Tips for Preschoolers

For 3- and 4-year-olds, time is essentially divided into now, and not now. But that’s enough to help them figure out how to predict and plan what comes next. To reinforce that knowledge:

  • Talk about the changing seasons. All those leaf prints (and later in the year, snowflakes) on display in almost every preschool classroom aren’t coincidental, says Stephanie Lampert, a pre-K teacher from Atlanta. The seasons are a primary vehicle for introducing the cyclical nature of time. “It’s an extremely abstract concept,” she says, “and preschoolers are extremely concrete thinkers. By observing a tree over the seasons, for example, kids can see the progression: The green leaves of summer turn red, then brown, and eventually fall off the tree before coming back to life again in the spring. This is a tangible representation of the passage of time that little ones can understand.”

How does that help with time management? By observing the patterns in nature and in their daily lives, little kids intuitively grasp the concept of time — and how to create order. Reinforce those lessons by having your child sort family photos by seasons, for instance. Or point out patterns in nature when you go for a walk.

  • Create a (picture) schedule. “As adults, we use apps and calendars to remind us what we should be doing and when. In the preschool world, we use pictures — like an apple for snacktime and a book for storytime,” says Ellen Dietrick, a Needham, MA, preschool director whose classrooms are dotted with visual cues to keep her young charges on track. So while these 3- and 4-year-olds can’t tell you the exact hour they have snacks, they know it comes after circle time and before the bathroom break. “It gives them a comforting sense of order and predictability,” Dietrick says.

Since little kids love routines and repetition so much, create charts of your child’s morning and bedtime rituals. Then have your child check off the steps as he does them — an important lesson in breaking up a bigger chore into smaller, more manageable ones.

  • Practice waiting. “Time management, at its most basic level, is the ability to delay gratification,” a skill linked to better study habits and grades, among other things, says Dietrick. To strengthen time management, Dietrick devises situations that require her students to wait for something they want. “If they clamor for pajama day, for example, we schedule it for a week away, rather than the following day,” she explains. “We mark the days off on the calendar and build up the excitement as the event gets closer. This gives them a sense of what it feels like to postpone something — and a positive experience to associate with it.”

Try something similar with outings and birthdays: Begin talking up that trip to the zoo a few days beforehand, for instance, or tell your child to keep a running birthday wish list. Even planting a bulb, watering it, and watching it slowly bloom teaches the art of patience.

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