I used to hate going to the playground.  I dreaded it to the point that I often avoided it altogether.  To be fair, it wasn’t actually the being at the playground, but the leaving, that I dreaded so much.  My kids never seemed to want to leave, no matter how much time we spent there.  When I started with Waldorf homeschooling, I was immediately struck by the power of Transition Songs and my first use of this new tool was for leaving the playground.  When I wanted to leave the playground, I simply came alongside my children, sang our Transition Song (“Hi Ho, Jim Along Josie”), and they would line up behind me like ducklings!  I felt like the Pied Piper!

This was in stark contrast to most of the other parents who would try to corral their kids by saying, “Jimmy, it’s time to leave the playground now.  Okay, Jimmy, I’m going to count to five and if you don’t come, then I’m leaving.  1, 2, 3, 4, 5.  Okay, I’m leaving.  Bye.”  We all know how this method ends – the parent pretends to leave, the kids don’t care (assuming they’ve played the game before), and then the parent eventually gets angry and picks up the child or adds threats (no ice cream later) until the child eventually comes along.

I was leaving the playground relaxed, happy and well-attached to my children; the other parents were leaving frazzled, angry, and with a break in the attachment relationship.  A stress-free, attachment-friendly way to leave the playground!?  Genius!

I quickly added more Transition Songs to our days.  We soon had songs to mark each transition:  waking, getting dressed, eating, taking a walk, even for going to the bathroom.

Waldorf pedagogy teaches us to use songs for transitions both to protect the young child’s natural state of wonder and imagination and because commands would be too awakening for the young child.

There is a parallel to this explanation in developmental psychology – namely that Transition Songs work because the child is “collected” and his will to cooperate is engaged, and also because the “counterwill” instinct is avoided.

Collecting our Children

From a developmental standpoint, transition songs provide an opportunity to collect our children.

Developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld writes in his book Hold on to your Kids that “we collect our children by cultivating a connection and establishing a working relationship with them.”  Our goal is to collect “the eyes, the smiles and the nods” – we want to make eye contact and to see the child’s eyes relax a bit, to get a smile and a little tilt of the head – these are the signs that we are invited into the child’s presence.  There are many ways to collect a child – the key is simply to come alongside him and intercept his attention.

Examples:

  • Sit with the child and play for a moment;
  • Comment on his play;
  • Sit next to him and take him in your lap;
  • Sing a Transition Song!

The genius of Transition Songs is that, when used as intended, they naturally lead us to collect the child!

I often wondered, though, why sometimes Transition Songs don’t work.  Why, sometimes, would I sing my song only to have my kids completely ignore me?

After years of using Transition Songs by rote, I finally discovered an important caveat:  we have to be present when we sing the song or we will miss the opportunity to collect.  We can’t be irritated or anxious or checking email on our iPhone as we sing; we can’t be standing by the front door, looking at our watch, tapping our foot impatiently as we sing!  We must look at the child, make eye contact, smile, and sing with warmth, delight and enjoyment.  These are the important primers to engagement.  Only when we see that the child is engaged (eyes, smile, nod) is it safe to gently put an arm behind him to help steer him toward the front door (as an example for a transition to a nature walk).

Avoiding Counterwill

There is another reason why Transition Songs work so well; specifically, why they work so much better than commands.  Using Transition Songs (assuming the child is collected) sidesteps one of our greatest parenting adversaries:  counterwill.

Counterwill is nothing more than a defensive reaction to perceived control.  This reaction is a natural instinct in all children (and adults!).  If a command (perceived as an attempt to control) is given to a child who has not been collected (or who is not well-attached), the child will feel coerced and will react with resistance or opposition.  If a young child is told that he must leave the playground NOW, he might laugh and run in the opposite direction; when told he must wash up for supper NOW, he might run outside to play in the sand.  These are not signs of a strong will, they are simply signs of counterwill.

The good news about counterwill is that it is a very simple construct and, once understood, is easy to get around.

Instead of telling our children to come to the table, we smile and we sing: “Welcome, welcome, welcome to our table; Welcome, welcome, let’s all hold hands together!” –

With this recent discovery, I now understand not only why Transition Songs work, but also why they sometimes don’t work!  When we learn to not only sing the songs, but to connect with and collect our children, the transitions will flow smoothly.  I hope these ideas will help your days flow a bit smoother and that you too, will become a Pied Piper!

~*~

Emily Milikow lives in Israel with her husband and two young boys (4- and 7-years-old).  She has a Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT.  When she had her first son, she felt the strong need to slow down and focus on her family.  She is now Waldorf home-educating her children and is training under the developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld (“Hold On To Your Kids”) to be a parenting coach via the Neufeld Institute.  Emily shares about her days at Flowing With My Ducklings.

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16 Responses to The Magic of Transition Songs

  1. Narelle says:

    When my kids were little we could easily spend four hours in the park. And we did at least once per week. After four hours of running, climbing, swinging, and sliding, the kids had no regrets about leaving the playground.

    They were lovely times.

  2. Kierna says:

    Thank you for sharing this is such an honest way. I am a nursery class (3 & 4 year olds) teacher & find that even singing any instruction seems to make it easier for the children to accept & follow. Kierna

  3. Lisa Nolan says:

    Great post! My son learned a transition song at his day school (preschool for special needs–he has Down syndrome) when it was time to clean up. And he loved singing it at home, too! I used to sing him the same five songs (and in the same order) when he was an infant when I had to change his diaper or clothes… It had such a calming effect. From my Montessori background, I know how transitions are so very challenging on young children who are in a “Sensitive Period of Order”: those transitions are changes (from one place to another, from one activity to another…). Love your post! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Michelle says:

    Thank you! This was wonderful – and such an important reminder! Thank you, thank you!

  5. Julia Welch says:

    Thank you for the good article and the GREAT idea. Even now, with kids 14 and 11 years old, getting up in the morning is so much simpler because I sing the wake-up song they’ve heard all their lives. Sometimes I have to sing it twice – those adolescent time-shift things going on, after all – but they’re up and at the breakfast table without stress or conflict.

  6. kris says:

    This is a great article… But I need some help… Can you suggest a resource as to where to find these songs? I have not had luck trying to create my own – neither in word, nor rhythm… nor in memory. :) Thank you so much!

    • Faith says:

      The ‘Naturally You Can Sing’ series by Mary Thiennes Schunnemann is great! The books come with music and a CD, and the songs are easy to learn. For transitions and household tasks, I use songs from “This Is the Way We Wash-A-Day” all the time. I don’t know if I can put a web address in this comment, but just google “Naturally You Can Sing” and you’ll see them.

      • cat says:

        THANK YOU!!! thank you everyone :) gorgeous
        And love the honestly in sharing your experience with presence

  7. Jen says:

    Oh so true! I remember the “clean up song” from preschool and somehow just instinctively started using songs to help my son through things. We have a hand washing/ drying song and he follows up with the “dry dry dry” part at the kitchen towel on his own now. While I put lotion on him after his bath I use other songs and generally throw his name and other family members names into well known songs to keep him interested. We have the “Farmer and the Dell” going through all of the family members and pets. He loves it. I also use “The Hokey Pokey” to help him be more willing to put PJs on when he is overtired and not as cooperative. We do a shortened, made up version but start with “you put your right arm in and you stick it through the sleeve”. Songs have made such a difference so far and this post is a good reminder to use them in other situations such as having to leave the park. Thanks!

  8. Jinnie says:

    Thank you for reminding me what a wonderful tool singing is with children. My only problem is the need to be so creative and make up songs in Hebrew. They always seem to sound nicer in english. perhaps you have something you can share?

  9. [...] is a wonderful article called The Magic of Transition Songs from the Wonder of Childhood. It is well written, and the author does a terrific job explaining the Why’s of transition [...]

  10. Marci Johnson says:

    I loved this article. I often used transition songs for my kids when they were little.
    Children are naturally drawn to the authenticity of the human voice when singing. Transitions can be hard, even for adults, so singing creates such a nourishing way of moving from one place to another–even metaphorically from playtime to lunch, or lunch to nap.

  11. Juniper says:

    I would tell my son about 5 minutes before it was time to go, then about 3 minutes and maybe again at 1 minute. Then when it was time to go, we would say goodbye to the slide and swings and whatever he was playing on. Worked great!

  12. […] discovered the magic of transition songs, so now I have scientific proof (or a Waldorf blessing, which might be stronger) that my incessant […]

  13. […] Emily Milikow, an MIT graduate, who lives in Israel, decided to stay at home with her young children and eventually made the decision to homeschool them. She writes here about how effective transitional songs are in accomplishing simple goals while keeping fun and harmony in yours and your kids’ lives. Read here. […]

  14. Jules says:

    Dear Emily
    I really enjoy your site and in particular this article you have written on transition songs….it speaks to the heart of young parents. I run a mothers group at a waldorf school in Australia and I would like to copy the article to share with parents, if you are happy to give permission.

    Jules

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