Last reviewed 30 August 2013

Visual timetables are widely used by practitioners who work with children with special needs to aid communication. They are especially effective with those children who are non-verbal and their use is becoming more widespread, particularly among mainstream schools and nurseries. Visual timetables allow a child to have extra thinking time — if we tell a child what we are doing next, the words disappear once spoken, but the visual images remain and can support the child to understand at their own pace, as Liz Hodgman reports.

What are they?

A visual timetable is simply a set of pictures, symbols or photographs representing the key parts of the session or day, or they can be used for an individual activity to break it down into small stages. The images are explained to the child so that he or she understands their individual meaning and are then displayed where the children can easily see them. This may be on a wall or down the side of a white board.

Why are they used?

Visual timetables:

  • provide children with the structure or routine for the session or the day

  • help children to become more independent

  • increase a child’s confidence and can also help reduce stress and anxiety as the child knows what is happening next

  • allow a child to predict and be organised, giving him or her some control

  • help a child manage a change to his or her routine or environment

  • can help a child to feel safe within a provision as there is a permanency about a visual timetable

  • help those children who are visual learners and prefer to see rather than hear

  • help those children with memory problems and who are unable to recall what they have been told; they allow them to revisit pictorially what is going to happen next

  • help children to understand the concept of time — now, next, this morning, this afternoon, etc

  • support the development of literacy (reading left to right, etc)

  • support children who have English as a second language

  • help to motivate children as they can see that they will be moving on to another task shortly or they can see the end goal of a routine or activity.

How are they used?

Visual timetables can be used in a variety of ways, depending on the provision, the purpose, and the age and ability of the children. They can be used to support an individual child or a whole group or class. They need to be displayed so that the children using them can see them easily at all times. It may be appropriate to make smaller, individual visual timetables for children to keep with them.

The pictures or symbols need to be easily recognisable to the children and explained so that they become familiar with them. The pictures can run from left to right (the same as reading a book) or from top to bottom.

The children can remove the picture from the timetable once the activity has been completed so they are then able to see what activities remain.

They are ideal to help children remember the sequence of events in routine tasks, for example going to the toilet. Each part of the visual timetable is a different part of the routine. Once shown, the child will hopefully be able to follow the pictorial cues to get through each stage of the process in the correct order. This will help with remembering to flush the toilet after use and washing his or her hands. Other routines may be hand-washing and drying — a visual timetable can be placed above the wash basin, but will need to be laminated to make it splash-proof.

The timetable can be agreed with the children at the start of the day or session. They can help decide when they are going to do some activities and then help to find the right images and order them correctly on the timetable. This will help them with decision-making and negotiating skills. You must ensure that there are lots of opportunities within the timetable for free-choosing of activities by the children and to allow free-flow between the indoor and outdoor environment.

You will need to develop a sign or a symbol to show the children that a task has finished and that you want them to move on to the next one on the timetable.

Making a visual timetable

There are lots of different ways of making a visual timetable and this will depend on the space you have available within your provision, how flexible you need the timetable to be (for example, will it need to be altered daily or weekly?), and the resources available to you. Is the timetable for a session, a day or the whole week?

You can download images free of charge from a number of early years or special needs resources websites or you can design your own, using images or photographs. You can also download free software that allows you to design and personalise a visual timetable and then print it. The advantage of photographs is that the children will more readily recognise the images as they are from their own environment. Laminating the individual images will make them more durable and save a lot of time and money by not having to continually replace them. You may wish to use just an image or to add the word or brief description of the activity underneath. This will help children to link words to pictures and writing.

You can use a felt board (stuck to the wall or portable) with Velcro stuck to the rear of the laminated images. Alternatively, you can put up a Velcro strip on the wall, either horizontally or vertically. Another option is to use plastic wallets mounted to the wall (for example, hole-punched wallets used in ring-binders). Position them together in a row and then the pictures or photographs can be dropped into the top of the plastic wallets. You can also hole-punch the laminated images and thread a ribbon or cord through each one. These can then be used to hang on hooks within the provision.

Visual timetables can be made to fit in with the current theme or topic within the provision, or pick up on the interests of the children who will be using it. This will help to maintain the interest and use of the timetable. For example, if the theme is football, set the visual timetable up on a “football pitch” or add small footballs to the laminated images.

If you are making a visual timetable for an individual child, you may wish to make it small enough for him or her to carry around. This is especially helpful for children when they are not in their normal environment or out on trips. The pictures can be whole-punched and then put in the right order. Thread through a treasury tag and then support the child to look at the top picture, and once this activity or routine is completed, encourage the child to turn it over so the next image is displayed.

Involving parents

Early years provisions are encouraged to support the development of the children’s home learning environment. Show parents the visual timetables that you use within your provision and how the children are benefiting from using them. Some parents may need support to make a visual timetable for the home. For example, if a parent is struggling with the bed-time routine and, as a result, the child is arriving very tired every morning at the provision, supporting the parents to develop a visual timetable for this would be really beneficial. Talk through with them the stages of the routine and help to design a simple visual timetable.