If there were a list of things that young children aren’t suited (developmentally ready) to do, at the top of that list would be being still and being quiet. Yet those are the exact two requirements we try to impose on young children during most transitions. We ask them to form an orderly line (something else they’re not adept at), to stand still, and to refrain from talking. We then ask them to move from one place to another in that manner, pretending to hold bubbles in their mouths so they’ll be silent.

I ask you: Does this demonstrate an understanding of child development? Does this show respect for who and what young children are? Or is this simply a desire for control?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a fan of chaos. I absolutely want the children to do as I ask! But if I’m asking them to do that for which they’re not developmentally ready – and for which they have no intrinsic motivation – resistance and chaos will be the results. Young children perceive when we’re disrespecting them and they make us pay for that!

The end result is frustration on the part of both the children and the teachers. And that frustration isn’t pretty. On the teachers’ part, during site visits I’ve witnessed them resorting to yelling at the kids to get them to comply. It’s no wonder, then, that transitions come to be dreaded by everyone involved. And it’s no wonder that many experts refer to transitions as a waste of learning time. How can learning take place in such an environment?

But it doesn’t have to be this way! Instead of fighting to get the kids to move quietly up a flight of stairs, why not challenge them to pretend to be climbing a mountain? Or, if that still results in too much noise (I happen to believe that sound is acceptable as long as it isn’t interfering with others), the children can be invited to pretend they’re weightless astronauts, or cats stalking a bird. Or how about a game of Follow the Leader, with the teacher at the head of the line, tiptoeing in exaggerated fashion up the stairs?

In addition to eliminating chaos (children aren’t inclined to wreak havoc when they’re engaged!), there are clearly learning opportunities here as well. With just a little imagination, transitions can be linked to themes and lessons being explored in the classroom, adding continuity and the repetition necessary for young children to “cement” the information acquired. Activities like these also offer chances for problem solving, creativity, and self-expression – and we can’t ever have too much of those. They’re among the skills we can be certain kids will need in this rapidly-changing world.

Because transitions usually require moving from one place to another – and music is a common partner of movement, as well as being mood altering – movement and music are the perfect tools for transition times, as well as being two subjects that today’s teachers have trouble finding ample time for! Children love movement and music, so that alone helps turn transitions into pleasurable experiences – even something to look forward to. Movement activities, songs, and fingerplays provide a focus for the children during transitions, hold the attention of waiting kids, and are easily tied to curriculum content. For example, if you’ve been studying animals, you can invite the children to move like some of the quietest ones: foxes, turtles, or rabbits, to name a few. If you’ve been studying the weather, you can ask them to transition as though they were clouds or a gentle breeze.

Speaking more generally, not only will the children learn to bring satisfactory closure to activities during successful transitioning; also, they will learn to move easily into and out of group situations. These dynamics naturally entail cooperation and consideration, which are important social-emotional skills. And the children will learn to follow directions – which is often the argument made for more “stringent” transitions.

If we truly understand child development, we know that young children have no motivation to learn something unless it’s fun and engaging (that’s where their intrinsic motivation comes from). If we make following directions fun and engaging, they’ll learn to follow directions. And if we handle transitions in imaginative and developmentally appropriate ways – and plan them, as other parts of the program are planned – transitions will be both trouble-free and filled with important learning experiences.

For lots of transition activities, for all different parts of the day, check out my YouTube channel.

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