Using calendars in preschool, why or why not?

Walk into a circle time in preschool in September and in June when the teacher is “doing calendar.”  It’s Wednesday. The teacher asks the children, “If yesterday was Tuesday, today is……?” The cacophony from the children includes the answers, “Saturday,” “Friday,” “Monday,” and pretty much any other day of the week.  It doesn’t change whether it is the beginning or end of the year. Why? Preschoolers are not developmentally grounded in past and future. For the most part, they still live in the now. Days of the week do not make sense-no matter how many times the activity is repeated. Yesterday, today and tomorrow are not solid concepts for three, four and five year olds.

Research shows little evidence that activities related to extended periods of time-week, month, year- also known as “temporal understanding” have any meaning for young children (Friedman 2000). This is why teachers will not see growth in these concepts over the course of the year-even if children can recite the days of the week in rote form.  It’s the same as saying that children who can sing the “ABC Song” know the alphabetic principle. Rote recitation does not translate to conceptual understanding. Even kindergarten teachers often comment on children’s lack of understanding around days of the week, and the research challenges the effectiveness of these types of activities for children under six.

Preschool and kindergarten children can grasp the concept of time in context of their daily activities. These concepts include-later, before, and after (Katz, 2008). Teachers can talk to children about these concepts in the here and now-such as, “after snack, we will go outside,” or “before we eat lunch, we will need to wash our hands.” However, children can’t sequence time in the way adults do with concepts such as, morning, afternoon, evening, days of the week, or months of the year. In fact, one of the best ways for children to begin to sequence time is to post a daily picture schedule-either left to right or top to bottom beginning with the first morning activity.  Include numerals to indicate time and words to describe the activity; however, children will learn the concepts of “before” and “after” from the picture or photo of the actual activity long before they refer to numbers or letters. The picture is the context from which they derive the meaning.

Teachers may ask, doesn’t the monthly calendar teach counting, patterning, sorting, and seriation? Certainly, research supports these mathematical concepts in preschool.  But, there are many ways that are far more effective in supporting children’s understanding of early numeracy. For example, numeracy is developed by stringing beads following pattern cards, putting unit blocks on labeled shelves to sort, using manipulatives that increase in size and shape to illustrate seriation, counting cups at snack and children in line, etc. These are all hands-on numeracy activities that are relevant and in context to a child’s world and thus, much more likely to be assimilated than a flat calendar with no relevance to a child’s world and, thus, his/her development.

By definition, a calendar is a compilation of the twelve months of the year. Preschool children may enjoy seeing a calendar in the way it is used in their lives at home. Teachers can hang full-year calendars in the housekeeping area next to the phone to model how a parent might write down a special event or birthday on a certain day, or put an appointment calendar in a play “office” (although this may become a foreign concept to young children as so many people only use their phone/computer calendars).  These uses of calendars put them in context for teachers to discuss in small groups or with individual children rather than large group instruction.

Lengthy daily calendar sessions in which a teacher expresses the expectation that young children will be able to develop confidence in their ability to understand and use mathematics runs counter the joint position statement on best practices in early childhood mathematics learning. Children must see mathematics as within their reach if they are going to develop positive dispositions toward problem solving (Katz, 2008, NAEYC/NCTM, 2002). So many preschool sessions are short-2 ½ or 3 hour days.  Time spent on calendar is valuable instructional time that could be put to more appropriate and relevant use in all of the other important developmental domains.

For more information, contact Maine DOE Early Childhood Specialist Sue Reed at Reed at

Beneck, S.J, Ostrosky, M.M. & Katz, L.G. 2008 Calendar time for young children good intentions gone awry. Young Children 12-16.

Friedman, W.J. 2000. The development of children’s knowledge of the times of future events. Child Development 71(4):913-32.

NAEYC & NCTM (National Association for the Education of Young Children & National Council of Teachers of Mathematics)