Time Timer Review: Time to Teach Independence

WHAT: Time Timer 3″

DOES: provides a visual and spatial representation of elapsed time; 3-inch model is great for individual use at home or at school (or at work for the grown-up)

INVEST: $30.00 (sometimes you might find it on sale on other websites)

TOOLS: Family Fix-it; I Can Take Care of Myself; Social Scene Helper (helps those who needs more defined time limits during open-ended playtimes)

When I first started Toysaretools.com, I promised myself that I would devote some reviews to gadgets because I really believe that certain things, however small, can make a big impact in your home or classroom.  But here in this space, we are definite shoppers of gadgets.  We have been buying tools and thinking of solutions way before we ever uttered the words “ADHD” and “my kid” in the same sentence.

For us, the actual shopping experience is a lot tougher.  For us, it is usually not about “to buy or not to buy,” rather we ask, “What can we get with our money because we need to do/get/buy SOMETHING!”  But getting that something is really really hard.  We do not live near teacher supply/special needs supply stores.  We only see things in 2D before we buy them (love/hate Amazon).  Only a brief description and if you are lucky, a reviewer with a heart, will fill in the blanks for you so that you don’t waste your time and money.  But we all know, that is not so easy and so sometimes when we are really in need, we end up making “risky” investments otherwise known as “desperate purchases”  or tell ourselves we are being “bad” as if we are buying a splurge item.

NOT a “Splurge Item” 

I thought I was making yet another such purchase one day when I bought the Time Timer. I felt like I was “treating” myself.  I had other timers at home.  They cost about $7-8 in kitchen product stores. However, the Time Timer I bought was definitely over $20.  Why should I buy it?  “I just can’t,” I first said to myself.

But then you look at it and you just sort of know:  This is going to be a good thing.  The hallmark trait of this timer is that a red disc disappears as your preset time allotment diminishes.  Kidspeak: no more red= no more time.

For kids, you just can’t be any clearer than that.  And for my kid, clarity is right up there with food and water.

The only gadgets in my house that are used more than our Time Timer are our T.V. remote control and our cell phones.   Especially on weekdays, the Nintendo DS and the Nintendo Wii in our home do not get as much play as our Time Timer.  It has become an indispensable part of our everyday life.  If my kids ever broke it, I would order a new one right away.

For those of you, who don’t see what I see, here is my big hint:  Yes, this is a tool to help kids know when time is up but my use goes beyond that.  I am using this timer to teach my kids something very difficult: I am teaching them to stop needing their mother so much.

Learn to “Feel” Time

Okay, I am not making sense here but I do like to call upon Alison Berkeley, one of my go-to educational experts and co-director of Emerge and See Education Center.  She has a really down-to-earth approach with kids that I love and on an equally high level, she is very key on the science of learning and has worked with many a distractible kid.  She’s even met my whirlwinds and I can tell you that their atomic energy was still no match for her own secret blend of kindness and genuine passion for guiding children to their true potential.

Alison plays with wild things here on the day we first met back in 2009.  I count on her a lot to tell me how best to use all the great tools out there.

Alison has used many timers in the past including the Time Timer and I thought we’d talk about how useful they were to get kids to hurry up.  However, what she first said was totally unexpected.  Alison’s first comment was that one of the biggest problems she encountered when teaching any child about time is that she must take an abstract concept like time and make it incredibly concrete.

I was stumped.  Whenever I used a timer for my kids, I didn’t think I was teaching my kids the concept of time.  I just thought they would watch that red disc disappear so they know I am about to ask them to stop playing and get into the bath (or go do your homework, or take a break, etc…)

“This timer takes time, which is elusive, and makes it not just visual but you also give it spatial recognition,” said Alison.  Oh my, well look at that! I was teaching them the concept of time with my Time Timer without even knowing it.  Well I just gave myself a high-five because my kid is a spatial learner and so whatever he learns with spatial representation is going to sink deeper into his head.

“When you say to a child, ‘you’re in Time Out for one minute.’  Well, one minute can feel like an hour to them,” Alison explained.  “One minute can also feel like a second.”   To Alison, timers give children the concept of the regularity of elapsed time, “One minute is one minute always, and that 15 minutes feels like this and that 30 minutes feels like this.”

This made sense to me.  Time is something that is felt.  It’s not just read on a clock.  “You don’t even have to be a master at telling time to use it,” Alison said.  I totally agree.  I started using the Time Timer with Number 2 when he was just 2 years old.  He loved it but he doesn’t know how to read an analog clock yet.  He’s still in preschool but I am quite certain he knows what 15 minutes feels like.

The 3 inch model can go just about anywhere.


Having Faith in Promises

Alison uses timers for more structured activities such as academic work. “Without the timer, you are just throwing them into the unknown,” she said.  However, if the kids know that they are only going to be doing it for 15 minutes then they don’t feel like it’s a big deal and they get through it.

And here’s another something interesting: Alison said that for the kids who have a short attention span, they themselves are aware that at a certain point, they will become frustrated and distracted.  However, with a timer, it gives kids the opportunity to talk themselves through it by acknowledging that there is a break after 15 minutes.

And that is when I realized the true gift of my Time Timer.  It is the gift of a promise. It is a promise from a teacher to a student that she will appear and congratulate him when the red has vanished and he has done his job.  It is a promise from my son to himself that X number of minutes in his day have gone past.  It is no different from currency, the promise from a government that dollars have real value.

There are more promises, especially from me to Number 1. Here’s an example:  He does his homework with the Time Timer now because one day, I finally forced myself to see that my yelling “FOCUS! Stop looking out the window!” will only go as far as “helping” him get homework done.  But it is not helping him do it on his own.

Now, everyday, I give him the timer. (disclosure: sometimes I do still yell) When I have my best parenting brain on, I look at him and tell him to set it for 2 minutes and see how many math problems he finished when it beeps. He should then expect himself to finish approximately the same number of problems every time it beeps (2 minutes) and as he goes further down the page, he may get less problems done because they get harder (but by then, he is likely in the swing of things). Every time the timer beeps, he has to reset it.  It’s his own reminder to keep working.  Two minutes might be small to you but everyone is different.  He has a greater attention span earlier in the day and so during those hours, I might then set it for five minutes.  Heck, he might then set it  for five.  That is the beauty of this method.  He sets the challenge (with my guidance for now).

To be sure, this routine is not fool-proof.  But on those days when it has worked, I was really proud of him. However, on those days when it doesn’t, it is a sign to me that he needs my help.  That is part of my promise as a mother because it is a tool and it is both of us who are using it but eventually it will just be him.   For now, my promise is that I am listening to the beeps (some, not all) and occasionally peeking to make sure he is on task.  The beeps are also reminders to him of the promises that he made to himself to finish his homework so he can play.

So simple, kids can use it but make sure they don’t play with it.

Time to Let Go and Be Independent

Alison understands my homework scenario quite well and sees other children using timers in the same way.  “They self-motivate as opposed to externally motivate.”

What does self-motivation bring? Alison says, “it’s the key to your independence so that if Mom isn’t there, if your teacher isn’t there, if nobody’s around, you still have to get certain things in life done and you have to do them independently.”  When Alison says this, I am no longer thinking about my son, I am thinking about me and my world of grown-ups.  I am thinking about how time-management is a major problem for me and how it is probably one of the most, if not THE most prevalent problem in any workplace.

I then go back to thinking of Number 1 and Number 2 and how they had some early exposure to learning about elapsed time through a Time Timer.  By now I have long forgotten that this timer costs more than an egg  timer.  Instead, I am patting myself on the back that I have two Time Timers sitting in my home (actually three because one is an iTouch app)  We actually never know where the Time Timers are because they travel from room to room for various purposes including both play and work.  On most occasions the Time Timer is with the kids and I go to another room to get work done.

“The whole thing is to be able to think through, plan, manage your time and do it as independently as possible so that you can set them free,” Alison tells us, “and they do what they have to do on time.”

I wish I could tell you that I had such brilliant intentions when I bought my first Time Timer.  I did not.  I merely thought that the signature red disc was a more helpful way for my child to understand that he was running out of time.  While it definitely does that, it is now quite obvious that it can do so much more.  There are lots of varieties of Time Timers including iPhone apps so shop around! And pssst… they are working on an Android app.   I can’t wait!

Master User (and Purveyor) of Toys as Tools – A Tribute

This post is dedicated to Julie Azuma, mother and entrepreneur extraordinaire and the Founder and Owner of Different Roads to Learning, an online store that sells therapeutic products (including toys) that are specifically designed or are just plain great for kids who learn differently.  Julie is definitely someone who believes that toys are tools.  In fact, she introduced me to some of my earliest toolbox favorites when I was just starting to understand that toys are really tools in a parent’s toolchest.  You can read about her incredible journey in my former blog, Can Mom Be Calm?   She is another mom who “gets it.”  I especially want to pay tribute to Julie and her store because it was at Different Roads to Learning that I first caught my love-at-first-sight glimpse of the Time Timer.  

And a bit of news that no one knows yet, an excerpt of this review will be featured in the upcoming 2012-2013 Different Roads to Learning catalog!    I think it should be coming out any day now.  I love finding the latest products here.  I am actually eyeing another timer from there now.  Bet you can’t guess what it is!

Disclosure: Toys are Tools has not been compensated in any fashion by the manufacturer or retailer of any of the mentioned products in exchange for the publication of this post. I am a proud purchaser of my own Time Timers. Time Timer LLC did provide Alison with her own timer since Alison currently did not have one (but as an educator, she had used them in the past many times).  Receipt of the timer was not contingent upon writing a review.  All photos and videos courtesy: Time Timer LLC

Jenn Choi is a writer and mom to 2 children with special needs which include the roman letters A, D, H, N, O, P, and S in various combinations. They also possess superpowers like high-energy (really high), number and small detail memory, creative thinking, and an uncanny ability to drive a parent to the very edge of the universe and bring them back with one quick smile. Her writing about toys as tools for developing skills and feeding talents can be found at www.toysaretools.com

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adhd and homeschooling, adhd and school, attention/focus, executive functioning, homework ·

About the author

Jenn Choi is a writer and mom to 2 children with special needs which include the roman letters A, D, H, N, O, P, and S in various combinations. They also possess superpowers like high-energy (really high), number and small detail memory, creative thinking, and an uncanny ability to drive a parent to the very edge of the universe and bring them back with one quick smile. Her writing about toys as tools for developing skills and feeding talents can be found at www.toysaretools.com


  1. Seth says:

    Thanks- Great review. I am an Education Coach and I use timers with all students because they work. The one you mention is expensive but well worth it because, as you implied, it helps kids develop a better sense of time and it helps them become more independent. Time is so abstract for kids with executive function challenges and the color on this timer makes it more concrete. I use digital timers but I am working with older students typically. I could write a chapter describing how I teach kids to independently use the timers so I won’t go there now. But the point is that they work and I always recommend using them!

  2. John Salter says:

    You can use an online timer as well.  I have found http://timerbutton.com works great and I have been much more motivated since I started using it.


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