Time perception in children and adults

dziewczynka patrzy na zegar
dziewczynka patrzy na zegar

Published: 04-12-2023

Time is the fundamental dimension we use to coordinate our social interactions and organize our memories and plans. How do we estimate time? How does the sense of time differ between children and adults, and at what age do we begin to perceive time similarly to adults? Sandra Stojić and her colleagues tried to answer these questions.

Participants in their study watched two short clips of a cartoon. One of them was full of various events, while in the other nothing actually happened, the action was monotonous and predictable. Both fragments lasted one minute, which the subjects did not know about. Their task was to indicate which fragment was longer.

138 people took part in the study, divided into 3 age groups: 4-5 years, 9-10 years and over 18 years.

Adults were much more likely to find a fragment in which nothing was happening longer. 76% of adults chose this video. It seems intuitive to me. As a rule, time takes longer when we are doing or watching something boring, and it passes faster when we are doing something interesting.

However, the opposite is true for preschool children. 67% of young children chose an eventful movie as the one that lasted longer.

School-age children, like adults, more often pointed to a monotonous fragment of a cartoon, but not as often as adults. 61% of children of this age had the impression that a monotonous film was longer.

According to researchers, before children learn to use watches, they estimate time based on events. They follow the heuristic “how long could I talk about it” and if they could talk about something longer because a lot happened, they think it took longer. Between the ages of 4 and 10, children learn “adult” time perception, that is, they gradually change from “event” to “clock” time.


Stojić, S., Topić, V., Nadasdy, Z. Children and adults rely on different heuristics for estimation of durationsScientific Reports 13, 1077 (2023).

Author: Maja Kochanowska

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