Time and sequencing activities for preschoolers

Is it lunchtime?

No, it’s almost time for supper.

Why are you wearing your trousers? You have to put your underpants on first.

You are third in line. It’s your turn after mine.

Doing things in order is important.

But what seems obvious to us is not necessarily so for our children.

Today we look at sequencing and time.

Why is sequencing important?

Sequencing is a hidden skill. It’s buried beneath reading and writing, counting and time.

It underpins everything. What could we learn without understanding before and after, cause and effect?

We use sequencing when we recount events. How was school today? Well, first we had assembly, then English, and then Tommy’s tooth fell out during snack time…

We use it to tell stories. Once upon a time there were Three Little Pigs…

We use it for instructions. To bake a cake, first you take the flour…

And, of course, there are sequences that govern our everyday lives:

  • 12345…
  • abcde…
  • Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…
  • January, February, March…

All of the above must be in the correct order to make sense.

The link to cause and effect

Take a handful of sticks and arrange them in order from shortest to longest. So far so good. But you could also reverse the order and it would still make sense.

But you can’t do this with the story of The Three Little Pigs. The Big Bad Wolf can’t show up before The Pigs have left their mother’s house.

Stories are a kind of sequence that only works one way. They rely on cause and effect.

Children must understand beginning, middle and end so that they can understand the stories they listen to and create stories of their own. In order to be understood, they have to communicate their thoughts in the correct order.

A visual timetable

This is a simple, yet powerful, idea.

Take photos of the day’s events and arrange them in order. Your child has a resource to refer to throughout the day to orientate herself in time. We’ve just come back from the shops. It must be time for lunch.

A typical day might look like this:

  • Wake up
  • Breakfast
  • Brush teeth
  • Get dressed
  • Walk to the shops
  • Lunchtime
  • Play in the garden
  • Visit Granny
  • Supper
  • Brush teeth
  • Storytime
  • Bedtime

How to create a visual timetable

Materials needed

  • A large sheet of card or cardboard
  • Photos of family members, familiar faces, locations, and events
  • Magnetic tape
  • Scissors
  • Glue or adhesive
  • Markers or coloured pencils
  • Ruler
  • Laminating sheets and laminator (optional)

Step-by-step guide

  1. Plan the layout. Decide on the size of your card or cardboard, and how many events or activities you want to display for each day.
  2. Cut and size the photos. Cut the photos to fit well on the card, leaving enough space for all the events and people you want to include.
  3. Arrange the photos. Before sticking them down, place the photos on the card in the order you want them to appear to visualise how the timetable will look.
  4. Prepare the card. If you’re using a plain sheet of card, you may wish to draw grids or lines with markers to separate the days and events.
  5. Attach magnetic tape. Cut small pieces of magnetic tape and stick them to the back of each photo. Make sure the magnet is strong enough to hold the weight of the photo.
  6. Secure photos to the card. Attach the photos to the card, ensuring they are in the right position according to your planned layout.
  7. Label events and times. Use markers or coloured pencils to write the name of each event or activity next to the corresponding photo. You can also include times if you wish.
  8. Optional: lamination. If you want to make the timetable more durable, consider laminating it.
  9. Daily updates. Each day, move the magnets to reflect that day’s events. This way, your child can see what to expect in a familiar and reassuring format.

Alternative materials

  • Whiteboard. Easily erasable and can be used with magnetic tape as well.
  • Corkboard. Use push pins instead of magnetic tape to attach photos.
  • Fabric board. Use Velcro strips instead of magnetic tape for a softer touch.
  • Chalkboard. Draw the grid with chalk and use magnetic tape for the photos.

By using this visual timetable, you can help your child gain a better understanding of daily routines, aiding in her development and making transitions between activities smoother.

    Use images found online – or clip art. You don’t have to photograph every one. You need a collection of images that covers most eventualities.

    A timetable also helps your child to see the good things that lie ahead, which can help with behaviour and time management. Remember that we’re going to the park once we’ve done the shopping. But we have to be quick or there won’t be time.

    Visual timetables also give your child the chance to express her preferences.

    If I say to my children that we’re planning to visit Ham House today, they might protest. No! We always go there! Why don’t we go to The Common instead?

    Where we go doesn’t matter too much to me. I just want them to get out of the house for a couple of hours in the afternoon to stretch their legs.

    They get to add The Common to the visual timetable and feel like they have some control over their day. Once we’re home again, they are more likely to do their homework because they understand that they were given something in return. Their choice was respected. They don’t have the sense that they are being bossed around all day.

    Visual timetables aren’t onerous but even if you think they are too much trouble to use daily, they work really well for special occasions. This could be anything from weekend days-trips to Christmases and birthdays.

    Or you could just use the timetable for a week and then discard it. You will have planted a seed in your child’s mind, enough for her to start to piece together the different times that make up a day.

    Start with a printable

    Don’t put lots of effort into making custom pictures until you’re sure it’s something you’d like to do long term. It’s much more meaningful to have a photo of Granny on your board than a generic clip-art illustration but it’s not essential. For now, why not find some free visual timetable printables online?

    Buy something readymade

    A homemade board with personalised cards is more meaningful for your child, but it requires a lot of time to make. Better to buy some fridge magnets from Amazon if it means you actually make a start. Done is better than perfect.

    N.B. I don’t endorse the magnets linked to above. They are just an example of what’s available.

    Increase the challenge

    As well as putting the cards in order, you can assign a time. Stick to o’clock for now, even if the events don’t start exactly on the hour. At 9 o’clock, we go to nursery, at 12 o’clock you come home, at 1 o’clock we have lunch…

    The idea is to introduce the idea of time. Your child isn’t ready to read a clock yet. She can simply enjoy noticing that the hour on the timetable matches the hour on the clock.

    Simple sequencing activities

    The activities below are a mix of learning, following and choosing sequences. Try to get a mix of all three types as they are subtly different skills.

    Sequencing cards

    There are lots of card games you can buy showing simple sequences of events.

    This set is eeBoo’s ‘Logical Sequencing | All in Order’, but there are plenty of others.

    Increase the challenge by arranging sequences of six cards. Make it easier by using just two (before and after).

    You can also use cards to tell a story. The order of events is looser, but you still need a logical structure. These cards, again by eeBoo (Create a Story | Back to School) are effectively a visual timetable for the school day.

    However, there’s no need to buy special sequencing cards: Any cards will do, as long as the pictures are clear. Google ‘Free printable sequencing cards’ and take your pick. Black and white images are nice because your child can then colour them in. She can even cut out the pictures and stick them onto card.

    Challenge: Once your child has arranged her cards into a pleasing order, why not ask her to dictate the story to you, using the cards as prompts. Write it down and stick the words beneath the pictures and put it all into a book. You now have a unique story that your child can proudly reach for and ‘read’ whenever she likes.

    Follow a recipe

    Find a simple recipe and follow the instructions. You have to do it in order or it won’t work.

    Best of all, use illustrated recipe cards, like these. Increase the challenge by cutting them up and putting them in order.

    You can even make up your own cards for favourite recipes you make at home.

    Recount the story

    Read a story with your child and then ask her to recount the events. Can she do it in order?

    If you’ve got old books that are damaged or worn, consider cutting them up and using the pictures as sequencing cards. You can mount them on card for durability.

    Songs and rhymes

    Do you remember ‘There was an old lady who swallowed a fly’? Each animal in the rhyme was a little bigger than the last. Can your child remember the order?

    How about the sequence of animals in Old MacDonald? Or counting backwards in ’Ten Green Bottles’?

    Arrange family photos in order of age

    A simple activity but both fun and meaningful for your child.

    Use a calendar

    Inspired by seeing her brother’s upcoming birthday on the calendar, this week my youngest daughter decided to add her own birthday. We turned the pages until we reached her month and then she counted the days until she found her number. A quick scribble with a pencil and her birthday was marked. She can now return to the calendar periodically, to check how many months are left. Seeing the number of remaining pages helps her to link the abstract concept of a ‘month’ to her everyday sense of the passage of time.

    When you’re four, ‘next week’ seems like a lifetime away but when you tick off the days, one at a time, the wait is easier to understand and to bear.

    Apart from birthdays, what else could you add to the calendar? A trip to Granny’s? The summer holiday?

    And how could you put the calendar within reach? It doesn’t have to be two feet off the ground but perhaps you could offer a step or stool for easy access.

    Photo journal

    Next time your child has a special day, document it through photographs. Whether it’s a holiday or a birthday, take pictures throughout the day. Print them out and stick them into a scrapbook. As with the story scribing example above, you can add your child’s description of events beneath the pictures

    If your child is at nursery, you will probably noticed that in the reading corner the teachers have a section for books the children have made.

    • Our Trip to the Farm
    • Nursery Class at The Zoo
    • World Book Day

    Familiar topics and events the child has experienced are much more meaningful.



    Make a pasta necklace. Two green, two plain, two green, two plain. It’s pattern, it’s a sequence, it’s the two-times-table. So much learning in such a simple activity.

    Make it harder by adding a third colour and changing the quantities: Two green, one red, one wholemeal, two green, one red, one wholemeal.


    Seriation is a concept from maths that means putting things in order, for example by length or size.

    Play with nested boxes, Russian dolls, cuisenaire rods and unifix cubes. These are what Montessori teachers would call didactic materials – they ‘teach’ the concept automatically through play. You can’t fit them together without understanding the sequence.

    Music and dance

    I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that subjects don’t fit neatly into silos. Pattern-making and sequencing are as relevant to music as they are to maths.

    Remembering the words and actions for Over the Deep Blue Sea is a stepping stone to writing stories and learning times tables. The same is true for dance.

    Telling the time

    This is something that we don’t teach children until they have been at school for a year or two. To do it properly, you not only need to recognise numbers 1 to 12 but also concepts such as half and quarter and the five times table. There’s a lot to learn!

    Your child will sometimes ask what the time is. Encourage her to look at a digital clock. What’s the first number? For a preschooler, we can happily call ‘5:23’ five o’clock.

    Having a toy clock is a great imaginative play prop. Your child can move the hands to point to numbers she knows. My youngest daughter likes to pretend that she is her nursery teacher. She lines up her teddies and addresses them in her most teacherly voice. OK, children! Now it’s 9 o’clock. Time to read a story…

    This is the kind of clock you could use. What’s great about this one is that there are hidden gears that ensure the hour and minute hands move in unison. At this stage all you are doing is reinforcing the idea that the hands move in a clockwise direction and pointing them to the various numbers.

    But for preschoolers, telling the time is mostly about learning that there are ‘times’ – lunch time, story time, bed time – and that these occur in order.

    And that’s the cue for our secret weapon: the visual timetable.

    The language of sequencing

    Having the right words to describe things is important. With a big vocabulary, you can often use one word instead of another. But sequencing vocabulary is precise. There are no alternatives.

    • First, second, third
    • Before, after
    • First, last
    • Next, previous
    • Now, later

    They aren’t hard to learn. Just use them in your everyday speech, especially when talking about time.

    You are helping your child to organise her thoughts. Without the right words to describe what she’s doing, she will find it hard to make sense of what she has done and what she plans to do.

    Final word

    Sequencing is everywhere.

    Activity cards are nice and a visual timetable is a fantastic resource. But, in the end, nothing is better than living time, than talking about it as you experience it. Talk to your child about the time of day. What time is it now? Don’t focus on hours and minutes. Talk about events. Now it’s lunchtime. Afterwards we will go to the park. This morning we visited Granny.

    It’s the work of many years.

    Now’s a great time to start.