The Magic of Transition Songs
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.
- 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).
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.