The development of time word comprehension & mental time travel in early childhood

Anna Andrea Bánki, Gabriela Markova, Katharine Tillman, David Barner, Stefanie Hoehl

Time word comprehension in early childhood develops gradually between the ages of 3 and 7. Three-year-old children use deictic time words (e.g. yesterday, tomorrow) without associating them with adult-like meanings, an ability that only evolves by the start of elementary school (Tillman, Marghetis, Barner, & Srinivasan, 2017). First, children construct partial meanings of deictic time words based on language cues, while developing an insight into the domain of time (Tillman et al., 2017). Mental time travel (MTT), the cognitive capacity to project ourselves into the past and future is composed of the abilities of episodic memory and episodic future thinking, both emerging between the ages of 3 and 5 (Ferretti et al., 2018). Busby & Suddendorf (2005) suggested that children can travel mentally in time before they acquire a semantic understanding of time words. However, little is known about the interrelation between the development of time word comprehension and MTT abilities in early childhood. In this study, we assessed the performance of 64 children (age: 4-7 years) and 60 adults (age: 20-58 years) on a timeline task (Tillman & Barner, 2015) measuring time word comprehension; and on the Picture Book Trip task (Atance & Meltzoff, 2005) quantifying MTT abilities. Our results revealed that age had a significant effect on MTT scores (p < 0.01): 6 and 7-year-olds performed significantly better than 4-year-olds, but only 7-year-olds displayed adult-like skills. Additionally, children’s time word comprehension predicted their MTT performance (p < 0.01), suggesting a joint developmental trajectory for the two abilities.

Department of Developmental and Educational Psychology
External organisation(s)
University of Texas, Austin, University of California, San Diego
Publication date
Peer reviewed
Austrian Fields of Science 2012
Developmental psychology
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