Main Reading, Class 5

Smooth & Easy Transitions

Usually we think of transitions as something that must be done in order to get to the next thing, but children don’t think this way, and they can’t think this way. Children live in the moment. So if we want to have transitions that go smoothly and easily, we have to transform them into activities that are actually enjoyable experiences all on their own. Let me repeat that: to have transitions go smoothly and easily, we have to transform them into activities that are actually enjoyable experiences all on their own. Many of us try and think about having transitions be efficient, and certainly we try and have them be not-miserable, but we rarely try to make them enjoyable all on their own. This idea can change the timbre of your entire day. Sound overwhelming? With a little bit of planning and a little bit of practice, it is absolutely possible. I’ll look first at things that are essential for all transitions, and then I’ll look at how to approach transitions differently if you have just one child, or many.

For All Transitions

Prepare everything before you “start the activity.” Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to do your preparation without the children seeing it or noticing it, or that you need to exclude them from it. What it means is that you do your preparation for the transition in the spacious manner that we talked about in week one: children can be involved in your task or not, as they choose; you have enough attention for your tasks and for them; and you do them in a slow and spacious way. Just like we talked about in the class on mealtimes, the more you prepare before you officially Begin your transition (even if you’re doing the preparation all together), the more smoothly your transition is likely to go. If you have an activity that will involve multiple transitions (a mealtime, for example), think them through and prepare as many as possible. At Rainbow Bridge, we would prepare lunch, prepare hand-washing materials, and prepare all of the clean-up materials during free-play. That way, when we finally called the children to the table, we could flow smoothly from beginning to end.

Once you “start” your transition, have it be a fun activity. Once your preparations are done, and you’re ready for the transition to start, then start! Call the children in if they’re not with you; if they already are with you, then just begin: you’re now doing a fun, connecting, adult-led activity with your child or children. This “activity” might look different depending on whether you have one child or many, but in all cases they should: 

  • Allow children to be in motion from the beginning to the end. Children are happiest when they’re in motion, so let them be in motion; no waiting!
  • Incorporate as many different ways that children feel connected, as you can: imagination, physical fun, humor, songs & rhymes, and appreciation. (If you haven’t read it or need a refresher, read about the five ways of connecting here.)
  • Go at a measured pace. You may be running late, but remember that children cannot abide rushing, and will likely dig in their heels to slow you down. So it’s better to go at a measured pace that moves steadily forward, than to start rushing and risk things stalling altogether. The one way to get around this is if you turn rushing into a fun, connecting activity: “Hurry-hurry! Scurry-scurry! Never time to fret or worry! Get our shoes on in a rush! We can do it! Mush-mush-mush!” (If they’re old enoughto find it interesting, tell them that “mush” is what the Eskimos tell their sled dogs when it’s time to go fast). But if you hurry in this way, you MUST incorporate lots of eye contact, smiles, and room for giggles. Keep your adult, clock-oriented anxiety on the back burner, to help things move forward as quickly and smoothly as possible.
  • Harness the power of rhythm, and do the same (connecting) things in the same (connecting) ways as much as you can, for each type of transition. When children know how things are “supposed” to go (because they’ve seen it done, and done it, many times before), then they can become experts in that activity.

So using all of these tricks, getting yourself and your toddler out the door in the morning might look like this: While he’s eating breakfast, you get everything you’ll need to take with you and put it by the door. You also put his hat and his jacket on a little changing chair. When you see that he’s about done with breakfast you sing out, “Last little nibbles!” Before you get him out of his high chair, you get a warm washcloth and sing, “Wipe wipe wipe! Wipe your face. Wipe wipe wipe! Wipe your hand. Wipe wipe wipe! You are clean.” Then you lift him down, and give him his bowl to take to the kitchen (if the bowl is too potentially messy, you can give him the wiping cloth to take to the kitchen, while you take the bowl). You lift him up so he can set it on the counter, then immediately let him know it’s time to go get shoes on by saying, “Cockadoodle doo, my dame has lost her shoe! My master’s lost his fiddle-stick and knows not what to do! Where are YOUR shoes?” As he runs over to them (or as you carry him over, if he’s not cooperating), you repeat the nursery rhyme at least two more times as he sits down in the changing chair. He knows how things go, so he immediately starts trying to put his shoes on. I usually do shoes first, then hat, then jacket last (if it’s wintertime, hat first, then snowpants, then boots, then mittens, then jacket. If you put mittens on first, they’re nicely tucked into the jacket sleeves). Then get your own shoes and jacket on, and pick up your bags. Take out one thing and say, “We’re ready to go! I’ll carry the diaper bag. You may carry these wipes to the car, and put them next to your car seat,” and then you walk out together. As you’re walking from the house to the door, you have another song that you sing: this one a railroad song. “I’ve been working on the railroad, all the livelong day…” This is a long song, and it lasts the entire time as you get him into his car-seat.


These suggestions will help you get through pretty much any transition you can think of, regardless of the number of children you have. But how might transitions look different if you have a dozen children in your care, or just one? There are some tips and tricks that tend to work better in one situation or the other. Let’s look first at what transitions might look like for one child, and then for many.

Transitions with One Child (or two)

Transitioning Away from a Fun Activity

When the end of some fun event starts to approach, and we –the adults– start thinking about what will be involved in cleaning up the painting project, or packing up from a picnic at the park, our instinct is to voice this thought out loud. To children, who are living in the

moment, this is tantamount to announcing the end of the fun. It pulls them out of the moment. The more fun they’re having, the more of a shock it is. So we, with our adult logic, think, “This transition might be hard, so I’ll announce iteven earlier, to give them time to get used to the idea.” But all this does is to jerk them out of the moment when they’re having even more fun. Giving early warnings does little but cut the fun parts shorter, and lengthen the unpleasant parts.

Instead of cutting short the fun and dragging out the transition, drag out the fun and ease into the transition. Start your transition activities without announcing it. Start packing up the picnic basket. Start getting a sponge and wiping up the paint splatters. Then instead

of being abruptly told that the fun is about to end, children can gradually come down. They start to notice what you’re doing (or they don’t). Pack up with the same sort of spaciousness that we talked about in doing all domestic tasks: you have enough attention for them AND your task, and they can help or not, as they choose. If you have a LOT of cleanup or packing up or whatever to do, start humming or singing a packing up sort of song. If you’re lucky, you may find that cleaning up together turns into a fun activity to do together.

If there’s not a lot of cleaning or packing to do, then you might be all packed and ready to go before your child is really ready to be done. In that case, the trick is to get them in motion doing something fun, and keep them in motion all through the transition. So, if you’re at the park, it might be, “Let’s go down to the pond and see the ducks one last time,” or, “Let’s finish in the sandbox and go down the slide one last time.” For a fun project, it might be, “Do your last dab of paint and then you can come to the sink and rinse out your brush.” It’s never, “This activity is done, it’s time to stop.” Remember, kids can’t stop; but they can do something different. Make the something different be something fun, and then keep moving.

Play a game during the transition,
 or do some other connecting activity. I loved how a parent in one of my classes said that she never announced that they were leaving, to her little one. Instead, she would just get her stuff and start playing the “Can you find something that’s yellow?” game. They would find things that were yellow (or whatever color) all the way to the car. There was no announcing, there was only living in the moment for her child, and the moment was always enjoyable, so there were no struggles. that’s fun, that morphs into something else.


Transitions When They Don’t Want to Go to What’s Next (bed, daycare, diaper changes, etc.)

When a child knows that something’s coming up that they don’t like, life can suddenly become unpleasant. A common impulse when this happens is to disconnect from our kids and do things ‘to’ them, which makes it even more unpleasant, which causes them to dread it even more. It turns into a negative cycle that everyone dreads.

To break this cycle, or prevent it from happening in the first place, work on connecting. Slow down, connect, make the moment as enjoyable as possible. Do this as long as you can, until the point where the connection is broken and your child can’t ‘hear’ you anymore. Once your child is engaged in the dread rather than engaged with connecting to you, go fast and get the rest done as quickly and matter-of-factly as possible without rushing. Most transitions that children dread (saying goodnight, saying goodbye, etc.) have many parts leading up to them. Instead of having all of the lead-up activities just be something that they’re hating because they dread the hard part to come, make those activities super spacious and enjoyable. Yes, this means starting earlier, so that you have enough time for them. In fact, start much earlier, so that you can just ‘be present’ with your child in the lead-up to the moment that is dreaded. Change into pajamas right after dinner. If mornings are hard to get out the door, do everything you can the night before, or even the evening before, as an activity with your child. With all of this work done in advance, the actual lead-up to the event can be extra slow, extra connecting. If they start to dread what’s coming, remind them that you’re there together now, and jump into a connecting activity: do something imaginative, or toddler humor, or physical fun, or songs and rhymes, or snuggles.

Once the dread is actually there and won’t go away, then it’s time to be speedy and get it done as quickly as possible. But the idea is to draw out the connecting times longer and longer, until the child might realize that they don’t have to get disconnected at all. I had one little girl who I watched when I first moved to London who hated diaper changes, and I used this process with her. At the beginning, as soon as I would start carrying her to the stairs to go up to the changing table, she’d start to cry. So I started playing fun games at the bottom of the stairs. After a few weeks (I only had her two days per week), she would be fine until we got to the door of her bedroom. We’d go inside and instead of going straight to the changing table, we’d read a book. Soon she didn’t cry until she was on the changing table. Then I got a little stuffed bunny and ‘hid’ it on the window-sill above the changing table. Once she was lying down, the bunny would peak out at her and say hello, then hop down and give her lots of kisses. So then she was fine until I started taking off her pants. Gradually she got better and better, until she would only cry for a poopy diaper, and then finally stopped crying for diaper changes altogether. It changed things dramatically for her, and for us. Throughout that whole process, I’d make things spacious and fun up to the point where she’d ‘lose it’ and couldn’t listen at all, at which point I’d finish things up as quickly and matter-of-factly as I could. I’d pay special attention to the points where she had ‘lost it’ the previous times, and was able to draw her out until eventually the whole thing was enjoyable.

I can hear you thinking, “Yes, but I don’t have time for a 20-minute diaper change. That sounds exhausting!” My only answer is that in my opinion, it’s worth putting the work in now to help that transition go smoothly, because once it’s established you will reap the benefits for a long time to come. Set yourself up for success, start early, and let every moment be as enjoyable as possible.


Transitions with Many Children:

If you have a group of children, things are a bit different. You can’t really slip into the transition without them n

oticing; they tend to take longer, require more planning, and be more work. But the same standards still apply: set yourself up for success by getting everything ready in a spacious manner, then have the transition time be a fun activity, and incorporate connecting activities into it. Here are some thoughts for transitions with groups:

Get everything ready before you start. This is a rule no matter how many or few children you have, but when you have a group, you need to think a little farther ahead. So this means, get handwashing stuff ready before you start tidying up before lunch. In fact, we get our end-of-meal handwashing cloths ready before we even start cleaning up from free-play, so that it’s a smooth transition from play, to tidying-up, to eating, to cleaning up from a meal, back to play again. When I worked at BWK I used to take the kids to grandma’s house once a week, and I’d get everything we’d need and put it all by the door before snack, so we could go from play into snack and from snack straight into going to grandma’s. Or, before getting ready to go outside in the wintertime, we set up a chair for each child during play-time with his boots, snowpants, jacket and hat. Then tidy up and have circle, and from circle, release the children one by one with a little game to go find their changing chair (more on this in a moment). Remember, children need to be in motion. If you are not providing the motion for them, they will come up with motion on their own, and probably in a different direction! So think ahead.

hink of each transition like a “circle time” activity, with specific songs, rhymes, and actions for individual parts of each transition. Just like Ring Around the Rosy has definite steps and motions that go along with a given song (first hold hands in a circle, then sing and move around together, fall down at the right part, then stand up again), each transitions can be that organized. I like to plan each transition as having three parts: a beginning part, a middle part, and an ending part. I then work on making each part enjoyable, with a song or a game or imagery that I use. So for coming to the table, we first start with a tidy-up song, and then go straight into a coming-to-the-table song, and then into hand-washing or finger games.

Let each child be in motion the entire time. With groups of children in transition, bottle-necks are pretty common, and then children start coming up with other things to do while they wait around. In order to keep each child in motion the whole time, you can either set things up so that every child is doing the same things at the same time (as would be done in a “circle time” activity), or you can space the children out, so that each child is doing something slightly different at any given moment. One example of the same activity done each way is getting ready to go outside in the wintertime. The way I did it was I would start with the children in the play-room with me, and my assistant would be by the door, getting each child’s outdoor gear gathered by a “changing chair.” I would do a slow-release of the children, letting them go about one every minute or so, by playing a game with them: I’d say, “The next child to go is someone who is wearing green slippers.” The children would look around and figure out who it was, and then that child would come up to me. I’d hide a raisin in one hand and then sing, “Nikka Nakka, Nokka Noo, Dear little raisin, where are you?” And hold out my hands (this song is on the transitions video). The child would choose a hand and I’d open it up; if the raisin was there they could eat it and go to get ready. Otherwise they could guess again. In the changing area, my assistant would help as needed as each child got snowpants, etc. on. I do this type of spacing with coming inside to get ready for nap (tiptoe, tiptoe) or after a puppet show, where I’ll let each child play the harp and then go sit at the table for lunch.

However, each of these activities could have all children be in motion doing the same things together. One woman I know gets ready to go ouside in the wintertime this way: she gets all of the children’s things ready and then calls them over, and then proceeds to tell a story about a train going on a trip through the mountains. Chug-chug-chug, first it goes through a long tunnel (one leg in

the snowpants) and then chug-chug-chug through another tunnel (the other leg in) and then it would go higher and higher (kids stand up) until it came to a high mountain pass and there would be a high bridge for the train to cross (the children hold their arms out, and sleeves go on). Then she’d walk down the line and zip, zip, zip everyone’s jackets. Then boots on and they’re ready to go.

You can also help keep children in motion by assigning individual tasks: a child who is ready to go outside can help another child with his boots; “who will put this silk away? Simon will!”; etc. For older children, it might be, “Georgia, you may find every truck and put them in the truck garage.”

Those are my main ideas for transitions. Prepare yourself for success by getting everything ready in a spacious manner where children can join or not join. Then start the “transition activity” and make it fun and connecting. Keep kids in motion the whole time, from beginning to end, and let them live in the moment, where they do best!


If you didn’t catch it in the text above, here’s a link to me singing someTransition Songs

For more ideas on tidying up with one or more children in a family, read my post Tidying Up.

For lots more posts on different transitions, click here.

And from another blog, here is a blog post on transitions from The Wonder of Childhood:

Questions for Thought:

1. Which transitions are the hardest for you? Are these transitions that were hard for your family when you were young? Patterns can be hard to change.

2. What is it that tends to be the hardest about transitions in your family/group? Is it getting the children started? Is it that you stop-and-start because you haven’t gathered all of the things you need? Because you let the kids get side-tracked? Or something else? Identifying a common theme in what’s hard about transitions can help you plan ahead and change that pattern.

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