Use Visual Timers to Ease Transitions

Have you ever struggled to get your child or students to move from one activity to another? I have!

Take bedtime...that idyllic ritual where small children willingly dress in their pajamas, brush their teeth, and hop into their bunks for a bedtime story. Hah! This is a lovely fantasy of parents-to-be that their children will destroy the moment they are born.

The reality goes a little more like this:

Child is playing with Legos. Mom says, “Time to put the blocks away and get your pajamas on.”

Child whines, protests, refuses to budge from the pile of blocks. Mom starts strategizing. “You have a point. I didn’t give you much warning. IN FIVE MINUTES you need to put the blocks away and dress for bed.” She sets a timer on the stove.

Child happily resumes playing with Legos.

Five minutes later, the timer sounds and mom announces it is time to put the blocks away. She is met with screams and stomping feet.

What went wrong? She tried a very fair strategy.

The problem is that children lose track of time when they are absorbed in an activity. They need a way to judge how much time is left, even if they aren’t proficient in math skills yet.

And that’s where visual timers can help.

Visual timers let kids see how much longer they have for the activity they are doing. Visual timers take away that element of surprise. Unexpected change causes some kids to feel they have no control over their environment and may result in tantrums and melt-downs.

In the event of an activity that a child doesn't like, the visual timer serves as a promise that the dreaded activity will eventually end. Really and for true!

Seeing how much time is left helps children adjust to the idea of change. They may not like that their favorite activity must end, but removing that feeling of suddenness helps them develop control over their response.

What makes a timer visual?

That timer built into the stove or a handheld digital or dial timer is not adequate for most children. It definitely lacks visual support for children with cognitive or sensory disabilities or those who are too young to have much math sense.

A visual timer makes time meaningful by letting children see time passing. Typically, a visual timer will represent time with a pie that gets smaller and smaller as it is used up.

Several excellent visual timers using this “disappearing pie” are available.
A "Time Timer"
Photo by Earthworm on Flickr Creative Commons

TimeTimers ($30-40 at or on Linda Hodgdon’s website; approximately $20-30 at are the classic standard. These come in a variety of sizes appropriate for individual, group, or classroom use.

Wendy Homlish, a respected special educator, shared a source for another visual timer, the elegant Pie Timer for $14. This is good for use with individuals or small groups.

There’s even an app for that, an iTunes TimeTimer ($1.99) with the same visual interface as the physical TimeTimer.

Image from
A great looking countdown timer for the Android includes the Activity Timer ($0.99)

Image from

Or the Visual Timer PRO which can count down an hour (the free version is limited to 3 minutes).

Screen shot from

You can also install visual timers on your computer, whether to set limits to game play or to provide timer feedback.

I especially like the free Countdown Clock from It can be used online or downloaded to use whenever you like. It’s visually similar to TimeTimer and you can apply custom sound add-in to online version. If you want a desktop link to the download, you do have to create your own desktop icon.

The Countdown Clock can run in the corner or full screen

Several bar-style countdown timers might also be useful for older kids or adults.

iTunes offers an Autism Timer ($2.99), with disappearing bars that can change color as the time expires.
A couple timers count down in increments, which some of your kids may find helpful.

The Visual Countdown Timer ($2.99) works on the iPhone by erasing bars as time dwindles.

Focus Booster offers a free download of a bar timer for your computer. The moveable window floats on top of your work. Its timer bar lengthens as time passes, filling the blank window. It is elegant for adults to use and appropriate for an office. It's alarm is fairly soft, which may or may not be a good thing, as it is not currently adjustable.

Jim Luther has created a free incremental CountDown Timer for your computer.

Image from

While not providing as much graphic support at these others, Harmony Hollow's downloadable Cool Timer is a nice tool to use on the computer. It's free, has a customizable alarm sound and message banner, and is extremely easy to use. It's away to make sure kids (and adult audiences!) are in their seats when you are ready to start class, especially if you import a goofy sound as the alarm.

 Teachers of kids with autism have been using visual timers for awhile now and seeing excellent results during transitions. These timers can be extremely useful for many populations. If you haven't given them a try, why not do that this week and see if things go more smoothly. I'm betting they will!

Update:  Thanks to our reader Emma for sharing that the free Cool Timer by Harmony Hollow has been upgraded to include a visual countdown feature as well. I'm moving Emma's comment up to the body of the post here, since not everyone reads through the comments. I'm LOVING the upgraded Cool Timer and use it all the time (great for keeping my computer time from encroaching on the rest of my day!). I personally found it easier to download from the CNET site, so take your pick!

Two ways to run Cool Timer. You can
also set it to erase the image rather
than uncover.


Emma Fan said...

There is a new version of Cool Timer available which does, in fact, offer a new visualization feature that either erases or reveals a user-selected image as time counts down. See here:

Rose-Marie said...

Emma, thanks so much for bringing us up to date! This sounds like a really cool new feature in Cool Timer. I can't wait to download and give it a try. Many thanks!!!

Rose-Marie said...

Wow, Emma! Another thanks for letting us in on the Cool Timer update! It's got some wonderful new features that make it very useful. I'm having fun playing with it.

It's great to read about Cool Timer on the Harmony Hollow website, but I found Cnet to be a much simpler and straightforward process. Just my experience. :0)

Pablo said...

Another option is Timerland, , so far there is two timers, a farm timer and a planetary timer. This page is new, the plan is to add more timers in the future.

Rose-Marie said...

Thanks for sharing this, Pablo. They are very cute timers. I will admit I was kind of distracted from my task that I was timing to watch them, :0), but that would probably be less of an issue if I saw them repeatedly. It will be fun to see what additional timers Timerland publishes! Again, I appreciate you sharing these with our readers!