My neighbour’s kids love to come visit me in my garden, and they particularly like my little pond. One of the things they love to do is throw pebbles into the water. It’s only a small pond though, quite narrow and not very deep and so after a while the accumulation of pebbles tends to build up at the bottom and I have to fish them out again. 

Kids thrive when given the opportunity to explore the world around them, and I am loathe to prevent them from the simple pleasure of dropping pebbles into a pond and hearing the plink and plonk of the water splashing. So instead of telling them not to throw pebbles into the pond, I set a time limit. I tell them they can throw pebbles into the pond for five minutes. So off they go; dropping in pebbles of all sizes and listening to the different sounds they make when they hit the water, comparing the size of ripples that are left in their wake. And as they play, I set a timer on my phone and count down the time remaining minute by minute. …Four minutes left… three minutes left…and so on. I tell them when there is 30 seconds left, then count down backwards from 10. They stop when I tell them time is up and happily go off into another part of the garden to play. By setting a time limit, I can allow the kids to have their fun while also reducing the number of pebbles that end up in the bottom of the pond.  

It’s amazing the impact a timer has on kids of all ages. I have used this technique on kids of all ages, including 15 and 16 year old teenagers with good results. I have found by setting a clear time limit and a clear understanding that at the end of that time the activity they are doing will stop, kids generally will finish when you ask them to. 

We’ve all been there when we tell our kids it’s time to get off the play equipment to go home or to get out of the pool before they burn or wrinkle up. We’ve all been there when we tell our kids it’s time to get off the video game, brush their teeth and head off to bed. Nothing is more frustrating when they plead “just one more time, five more minutes, pleeeeaaase!”  I learned that by giving them that five minutes, and staying with them while you count it down, especially those last thirty seconds, helps them anticipate that the activity is definitely going to end. 

It all started with me trying to encourage my son to get off some play equipment in the park so we could go home. Telling him he had five minutes and then coming back to him intermittently telling him there were three minutes left, one and a half minutes left worked much better than telling him to come off the equipment right now, or saying vaguely that he would need to get off the equipment soon or resorting to yelling at him when he didn’t leave when I expected him to.  Kids need time to process information, that 5 minutes allows take up time. Kids also get engrossed in activities that they really enjoy, and it’s hard when you’re a kid to tear yourself away. Setting a clear time and counting it down gives kid  the time they need to process. 

I worked an eight year old student who would become extremely disruptive whenever he was asked to finish a learning activity and move to the next one. We tested the theory that the disruption may have been caused by not being able to anticipate when an activity would end, and not having enough time to process in his mind that the activity was ending. Finishing right away seemed too sudden for him, and his behaviour would become really disruptive as he firmly refuse to complete the task when decided it was time. We noticed there was a definite drop in disruption when he was given a timer and could see for himself the minutes and seconds ticking down. He liked being able to anticipate when an activity would finish and to be told what the next activity would be, and this worked particularly well when he was able to negotiate the time limit for the activities. 

I have seen some schools who have been really successful getting students to come off the playground at the end of a break by playing a popular song over the PA system, instead of ringing a bell. At one school I worked with, students were taught that when the song started playing, they needed to prepare to return to class.This meant packing up their bag, getting a drink and using the toilet, and then they needed to be lined up ready to go into class by the end of the song. Most popular songs last between 3- 5 minutes, and the majority of students would be happily lined up by the end of the song. It was also successful when students were given the opportunity to choose the song each week.

One of my students’ favourite activities when I taught in High School was a routine I called “Five Minutes of Random Questions”. Straight after the roll was called at the start of class, I handed the class over to the kids to tell me what was on their mind. But I set a time limit of five minutes. The rules were – you could ask anything so long as you put your hand up to speak, waited your turn to speak and listened when others were speaking. During Five Minutes of Random Questions I displayed a timer on the data projector, so they could see how long they had. It was a lot of fun, and a great way to learn so much about the kids. As soon as the timer went off, we got straight into the lesson content, and any other burning questions the kids had would be kept until the next lesson we had together. 

Setting time limits using a timer that kids can see or hear, and can anticipate the end of an activity using a countdown really works well in a whole range of situations. Allowing kids take up time to process your request can minimise the arguments that can often happen when we ask them to finish an activity, especially one they are enjoying.  If you have a child who is a skilled negotiator, then you could negotiate a mutually agreed upon time and let them count down the timer. We all have situations where we need to teach children to finish a preferred activity, the next time you’re in this situation, give the count down timer a try and watch what happens.