Time is an abstract concept as it is not something that we can see or touch. For young children, being told “It’s dinner in ten minutes” has little meaning! Without a clear concept of when something is starting or finishing, children may experience difficulties with moving from one activity to another. This can result in them becoming upset or frustrated, and then lead to behavioural problems such as tantrums.

Maybe a visual timer can help?

What is a visual timer?

Visual timers allow children to visually ‘see’ time passing by. There are many different types. For children who can read and understand numbers, a digital timer can be considered. Alternatively, there are sand timers, liquid timers, or countdown clocks which you can try.

Sand timer

Liquid timer

Countdown clock

Why use them?

  • They help children with transitioning (e.g., from a preferred activity to a non-preferred one) because visual timers allow children to see exactly how much time is left before their current activity is over.
  • They can help children to stay on-task, especially those who get distracted easily or tend to lose track of time.
  • They can promote independence and help school-age children to complete homework in a timely manner. For example, ten minutes is given for a writing task, and when the time is up, the child will move onto a reading task.
  • They can support parents if a Quiet Time or Time-Out parenting strategy is used. The visual timer is a good way to show children how long they need to stay in the quiet zone and it can also help to calm them down from hitting, throwing or crying as they can ‘see’ that it will end soon.


How to use a visual timer?

  1. Set the timer for the desired amount of time and show it to your child.
  2. Explain what will happen when the time is up, e.g., “it will be time for dinner”.
  3. Occasionally, remind the child how much time is left, and provide a gentle warning when the time is nearly up.
  4. When the time is finished, show the visual timer to the child and say e.g., “Time’s up! Playtime is finished”.
  5. Give the child a moment to process and end their activity.

Since there are many types of visual timers, you could involve your child in the selection process! For children who are sensitive to noise, choose a timer that doesn’t have an ‘alarm’ when the time is up (e.g., a sand or liquid timer).