When and how do you use timers with kids?

Updated Oct 18, 2023
When and how do you use timers with kids?

Have you ever told your child it's time to leave the park only to be met with a huge emotional response? Yeah, me too!

Parenting is the most rewarding job in the world but sometimes you just wish you could walk out the door one morning without having to plead with someone, clean up a spill, or have an epic battle over clothing choices. 

From a positive parenting perspective, an important component of making everyday life easier and fostering skills in our children is understanding there are behaviors that are developmentally appropriate for children. While we can’t make those behaviors disappear overnight, we can use tools and skill-fostering techniques that are both respectful and encouraging for our kiddos. 


Why visual timers work

How do you use a timer for kids?

3 strategies and tips to integrate timers into daily life

Timers FAQ

It is completely normal for a toddler and child in preschool to push boundaries, oppose, and have trouble regulating their emotions (your child’s tantrums are actually a sign of healthy development), and have trouble transitioning from one activity to the next. Managing transitions is probably one of the hardest day-to-day challenges. But why? 

One reason is that children want to do things that make them feel good! They want to stay at the park or avoid taking a bath because that means that bedtime comes after. The other reason is that children do not understand the concept of time [1]! Not only because they can’t read a clock, but for the first 5 years of life, children have no sense of time, meaning that 1, 5, or 10 minutes feels the same way to them. 

Visual timers are a great collaborative tool that help children anticipate and navigate transitions more easily. If a child understands when an activity ends and another one starts, they will be more willing to collaborate and accept this transition. While timers aren’t a magical solution, with enough time and consistency, they can assist in helping hard transitions feel easier for our children. Let’s take a deep dive into visual timers and how they can help our day-to-day parenting journey.

Implementing visual timers for kids at home is a great way to help anticipate transitions for your child, time management, foster independent play, and reduce any power struggles when setting boundaries. When children can actually see the passing of time, they can better understand it. Children do better when they feel better, and eliminating any anxiety over what is going to happen soon can help them feel more in control.

To implement a timer in your child’s life, we recommend you choose one that shows the passing of time. Some look like a regular kitchen timer with colors, others look like a traffic light, or you can even choose a sand timer. These timers often work better than setting a timer on your phone or microwave, since your child can’t understand what the numbers mean. 

Start by introducing the timer with a more fun transition first (not a chore!). Use it when the activity that comes after the timer ends is a fun one for your child. We recommend placing the timer in a place where your child can see it easily and bring their attention to the countdown as a fun activity!

Get down to your child’s level, make eye contact, and explain that when the timer goes off, it will be time to stop playing with blocks, and time to play with the puzzle (or something they enjoy). If your child isn’t verbal, saying this in a nice, affirmative tone while making eye contact will suffice. If your child is verbal, you can ask them to confirm that they understand what will happen.

When the timer goes off, you can use a positive, affirmative tone and say something like, “Oh, the timer is off! That sound means it is time to stop playing with blocks. It is time to play with your puzzle now.” If your child shows resistance, you can validate their feelings while still holding the boundary: “Ugh I know it's hard to say bye to blocks, you like blocks. But it is time for puzzles now.”

Start slow. You don’t want to overwhelm your child by suddenly having the timer present at every single transition. Start by implementing it with only one transition a day. Once you feel like they have a good grasp of the timer concept, you can start using it in transitions that they usually have trouble with, like bedtime, for example. (Here’s a helpful article on how to transition your child to bedtime using a timer.) 

The first thing you need to know is that visual timers aren’t a magical solution to parenting struggles. Their application and your kiddo’s acceptance of them will take time and consistency. Remember to use a positive, affirmative voice when communicating boundaries and expectations around the timer, and to highlight your child’s positive behaviors instead of always highlighting the negative ones through discipline. 

A commonly difficult day-to-day transition is ending screen time. At the beginning of screen time, you can say, “OK, time to watch some TV. I’m going to set the timer here so you can enjoy your show for a while. Once the timer goes off, we have to turn off the TV.”

Play is a child’s job [2], and children love to play with us. It is unrealistic for parents to drop what they are doing all the time to play with their children, but using a visual timer can help you gain some extra time to finish a task and foster independent play. 

Let’s say it's 6:00 PM and you are rushing to finish dinner, but your 4-year-old is begging for you to lay on the floor and play with them. You can pull out the visual timer and say, “Hey sweetie, I need to finish dinner. Can you play on your own until the timer goes off? Then Mommy will be able to play with you.” This will help your child wait a little less anxiously, and will promote independent playtime. Remember that it is normal to not get a positive response all the time from your child, their favorite activity is over after all, but with enough time and consistency, it will be easier for them to accept the transitions. 

Certain activities are boring for children, like chores, brushing their teeth, homework, or cleaning up their room. You can use a visual timer to help them understand how long they are performing an activity. Remember to start with small increments of time, and then start building up from there. 

Here is an example: You start implementing quiet time but your child gets antsy at the 20-minute mark. Start with your timer at 15 minutes, congratulate your child when they can wait until the timer is off, and then slowly add more time to the timer every couple of days until you reach your desired amount of quiet time. 

Timers FAQ

Q: How do I use the timer for a time-in for kids?


Incorporating a visual timer into a time-in with your child is a great way to set a boundary on how much time will be spent reflecting on the situation or behavior that occurred. When the time-in starts, you can sit with your child and set the timer. Explain to your child that you will be talking about feelings, behaviors, and expectations until the timer goes off and then they can resume the activity.

Q: What is time in?


Time-in is a parenting strategy that involves removing your child from a situation where there has been negative behavior. For a short time, help your child navigate their emotions and reflect on what happened. During a time-in, the parent will sit with the child to assist them in understanding their feelings, remind them of expected behaviors, and find solutions to repair the situation.

Q: What are the differences between time in and time out?


Time-in involves a parent accompanying the child and helping them regulate their emotions and figure out solutions to the problem or behavior that occurred. A time-out is commonly known as a parenting strategy where the child is removed from the situation and asked to stay alone for a certain amount of time by themselves. Research suggests [3] that when time-in is implemented as suggested by top evidence-based parenting programs, with a detailed step-by-step plan for regulation, it can reduce aggressive behavior and increase child compliance.

Q: Could I use the timer for quiet time?


A timer is a great tool to introduce and implement quiet time. Once you introduce the concept of quiet time to your child, you start a timer and leave it inside the room for your child to see. You would encourage your child to stay in quiet time until the timer goes off. You could start with small increments of time and slowly increase the amount of time your child spends in the room to build up resistance.

Q: When should I start using a timer with my kids?


Most professionals agree that age 2 is a good time to start with visual timers, but you know your child best. Many children start understanding the concept at around 18 months, while others take more time to understand and respond to this tool. Even if your child doesn’t grasp the concept right away, consistency and a positive attitude around this strategy will pay off in the long term. Your child will understand what happens when the timer goes off and transition with more ease from one activity to another.

Q: Should you use timer for kids?


Timers are a great way to help children anticipate and understand transitions, which is naturally hard for them since they don’t understand the concept of time. You can use a timer to help make transitions easier with your child. Remember to pair this tool with other positive parenting strategies in order to foster connection, improve the parent-child relationship, and teach skills to your child.

Note: The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from your doctor, pediatrician, or medical professional. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a medical professional.

3 Sources


  1. Friedman, W. (1978). Development of Time Concepts in Children. Advances in Child Development and Behavior. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0065240708600403

  2. Yogman, M., et al. (2018). The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children. Pediatrics. https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/142/3/e20182058/38649/The-Power-of-Play-A-Pediatric-Role-in-Enhancing?autologincheck=redirected

  3. Questsch, L., et al. (2015). Weighing in on the Time-out Controversy An Empirical Perspective. Society of Clinical Psychology. https://incredibleyears.com/wp-content/uploads/Weighing-in-on-Time-Out-Borduin-et-al.pdf