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Transition activities: finding "treasures" within the classroom.

Transitions occur throughout our lives. They can be as mundane as needing to find an alternative route to school when a road is under construction or having to select something else to eat for lunch when the cafeteria takes our favorite food off the menu. Transitions also can be life-altering events, such as divorce, a death in the family, or moving to a different home.

As adults, we have lots of experience with transitions and we often move from one place or activity to another without consciously thinking about it. Throughout our lifespan, we have learned ways to handle each new change and expectation as it arises. We draw upon our past experiences to guide us with our new encounters; when we cannot figure things out on our own, we look to others for assistance. Children, on the other hand, have much less experience with transitions. More often than not, they need additional guidance and support from adults to help them figure out what they are supposed to do as well as when and how they are supposed to do it. This is particularly true for students who are vulnerable for failure in the early grades (Stormont, Espinoza, Knipping, & McCathren, 2003). When teachers successfully guide and support students as they transition from one activity or place to another, benefits (or treasures) abound for everyone in the classroom.

Transition activities can be considered "indirect guidance" tools, because they help students change their attention and focus from one activity to another while ensuring that all students have a safe and successful classroom experience (Marion, 2003). Transition activities also can function as playful teaching strategies (Kieff & Casbergue, 2000). An example of this in a preschool or primary classroom would be to sing songs to help children transition from sitting on the rug to doing another activity, such as going to centers or washing their hands for lunch. Music is enjoyable for young children; thus, the skills and concepts presented through musical activities have the capacity to not only engage students but also motivate and enhance learning on multiple levels (Press, 2006).

Creating Transition Activities That Work for You

ransitions can be executed in a variety of ways. Sometimes they include rituals that become part of the everyday routine, such as having students put their belongings away, then choosing from a variety of tasks set up in the room. Other times, you need to initiate activities that serve the needs of a particular student, such as giving a student who finds it difficult to switch from one activity to another extra time to plan for the upcoming changes. This can be just a simple extra verbal reminder, or you can use an egg timer or the wall clock to help the student get ready for the upcoming changes. You may find that some of the transition activities you used at the beginning of the school year do not serve your students' needs at the end of the year. You may also realize that you need transition activities for the entire class as well as contingency ones that are especially helpful for students who finish their work early. In the latter case, such strategies as providing brain teasers or daily challenges often work well. As with most teaching strategies, the better you know your students and their capabilities and needs, the better equipped you will be to decide which transition activities will best meet their needs (and yours). To help guide your efforts, I have organized my suggestions in terms of a "typical day" scenario and named the grade levels that the activities are best suited for.


Students often have information and experiences to share when they arrive at school. Consequently, it is a good idea to allow some time at the beginning of the day for students to share that information with the teacher and their peers. Activities planned for arrival help students make the transition from home and/or the bus into the classroom.

* Have children sign their name on a large sheet of paper (this will later be made into a class signature book). This communal event allows them to chat with their friends as well as practice writing their names. [pre-K-1]

* Find and move name tags or picture tags from a board outside the classroom to one inside the classroom. This process helps with name recognition and also can be used later during a large-group activity to count how many students are in class that day, as well as how many students are missing. [pre-K-1]

* Students can attach name cards to or make notations on the laminated daily lunch count chart (e.g., one column for buying complete lunch and one for buying milk and/or ice cream). This activity frees the teacher to talk with students while they arrive and provides another tool to discuss math concepts during circle time with younger children. [pre-K-5]

* If students have a staggered arrival schedule, certain centers that are easy to clean up, such as the book area and manipulative area, may be opened for students to play in while they wait for the rest of their peers to arrive. [pre-K-K]

* Students can begin to work on a brain teaser, puzzle, or challenge for the day. This can be written on the board or selected from a special area in the room. [1-5]

Moving Into Large-Group Activities:

Utilize the times that students transition from one activity to another to engage them in active, playful activities that also help develop skills across the cognitive, physical, and social domains. This provides opportunities for a fun "mini-break" or "recharging session" while simultaneously helping students to refocus their attention on a new activity. As soon as you ask students to gather in a group or get ready at their desks, begin to engage them in activities such as these:

* Start singing a song or doing a finger play. Teachers often can recycle tunes and just add new words to fit what they are trying to teach. Props, such as puppets or signs with the lyrics on them, can help you to focus students' attention and add a bit of fun into the mix. Periodically talk with a student beforehand and ask him or her to lead the class in song. If you are not comfortable with having a student lead the singing, you can create the job of song selector for students to do each day or week. [pre-K-5]

* Engage students in rhythmic clapping and/or stamping. This allows students who are sitting and ready to immediately engage in an activity that combines motor activity with listening and thinking skills (recognizing and repeating patterns). This step also motivates students who were straggling behind to join the group more quickly and try to figure out and catch up with what everyone else is doing. [pre-K-5]

* Make up a rap song to introduce a new concept with your students. This genre of music has become popular, and so students will often express their appreciation for your efforts to engage them using pop culture. [1-5]

* Start telling a story in a very quiet voice. There is something about a low, quiet voice that seems to draw students' attention. We often read out loud to students, but we seldom just tell stories. [pre-K-5]

* Have an activity such as a DOL (daily oral language) exercise posted on the board or a flip chart. These comprise a three- or four-sentence paragraph that contains spelling and grammatical errors. As soon as students get settled, they can begin to spot the mistakes and get ready to share and discuss them with their peers. [1-3]

* Entice students with a music and movement activity. These can include different forms of dancing, such as the Mexican hat dance, the hora, an Irish jig, salsa, line dancing, and hip hop, etc. You can also engage students in circle games, such as The Farmer in the Dell, Bluebird, Ring Around the Rosie, and London Bridge, etc. After moving about for a few minutes, students can be asked to sit right where they are on the rug to listen to a story or engage in a lesson. [pre-K-1]

Moving to Small-Group Activities:

Classrooms can become chaotic when transitioning large groups of students from one area of the room to another at the same time. A multitude of ways exist to systematically and safely move students from a rug area or their desks to centers, tables, and into small groups.

* Randomly choose names from a list or a basket to send a few students at a time to another area. Reverse the order the next day so that students who were called on last will be called on first the next day. [pre-K-5]

* Call students by the names of projects they are working on. An example of this in a 2nd-grade classroom might be to send all the students "working on building the settlement" to go over to the block area and continue the work that they had started on the day before. [pre-K-5]

* Describe students in terms of gender, hair color, siblings' names, birthdates, telephone numbers, types of shoes, etc., and allow them to leave the large-group area when they figure out who you are describing. [pre-K-1]

* Spell students' names out loud and allow them to leave when they recognize their name(s). [pre-K-K]

* Sing a song that contains multiple verses, such as the various versions of "Five Little Monkeys"; after each verse, select children to leave the group and go to the next activity. [pre-K-1]

* Play trivia games or Jeopardy! with students and send them off to another area when they correctly answer questions that relate to schoolwork, television or movie characters, or personal information, such as asking, "Who just became a big brother?" Name four students before you ask the question and tell the rest of the students that they have to let the four you named have a chance to answer the question. When one of the four comes up with the answer, all four can move onto the next activity. [K-5]

Students Who Finish Working on Assignments, Eating, or Napping Early:

Disruptions to the learning environment can occur when students finish activities early. Providing transition activities for students during these times can help to prevent problems from arising. It is a good idea to post a list of activities (using pictures for younger children) so that students may look at and choose from them.

* Allow students to go to centers when they are finished eating breakfast or snack. While this may appear to entice students to hurry up and eat so that they can play, it often levels out after the first week. This step allows students to eat at a pace they are accustomed to without being pressured to hurry up by the students who eat more quickly. [pre-K-K].

* Encourage students who finish their work early to read silently at their desks or go to the reading center to listen to books on tape or do silent sustained reading. [pre-K-5]

* Direct students to the computer center to work quietly with a program that you have set up for them. [pre-K-5]

* Provide questions, posers, riddles, crosswords, word searches, and puzzles for students to work on while they wait for their peers. [1-5]

* Let children draw or write in their journals. [pre-K-5]

* Provide a puzzle to work on. [pre-K-K]

* Have students edit writing assignments. [1-5]

Moving Students in and out of the Classroom As a Group:

The logistics of a line just seems to create opportunities for students to talk with one another and poke and push the student in front of them. The longer they wait before the line actually moves out the door, the more apt they are to start messing around with one another.

* Have students line up in two lines near your door. One line can face the door directly and the other line can run perpendicular to the first one. You can designate a name or color for each line and alternate as you ask students to line up, calling on two students and sending one to the red line and the other to the yellow line. You also can place some colored tape or pictures on the floor to give students spatial and visual clues. Shorter lines mean that students have less time to wait before they can start moving out of the classroom.

* Have students walk down the hallway in pairs, holding hands. Again, this cuts the length of your line in half and only half of the students' arms are available for getting into mischief.

* Have students pretend to be animals (e.g., a mouse) and then ask them to walk as quietly as mice down the hallway. You can also ask them to tiptoe down the hallway. These are good activities to use as you go to specials and walk past open classroom doorways.

* If you co-teach or have an aide in the classroom, send half of your students to line up, and then have your aide or co-teacher take them to wherever they are going. As soon as they begin to move out of the classroom, tell the rest of your students to line up and then follow the others. This step eliminates having students waiting around and decreases their opportunities for getting in trouble.

Finding the right type of transition activity can be a hidden treasure in your classroom. Many resources are available to help you find specific music, stories, and activities to stimulate your students' bodies and minds, and I've listed some of them below. Students will welcome any attempt you make to add transition activities into your daily routines, especially if they involve a little movement or a challenge. You will be surprised at how these activities change your classroom environment. If you periodically change the activities, you will keep their interest piqued as they wonder what you will do next.

Additional Sources:

Feldman, J. (2000). Transition tips and tricks. Beltsville, MD: Gryphon House

Humpal, M., & Wolf, J. (2003). Music in the inclusive environment. Young Children, 58, 103-102

LaCava, P. G. (2005). Twenty ways to ... facilitate transitions. Intervention in School and Clinic, 41, 46-48.

Peterson, D. (2000). Using transitions to promote literacy in preschool and primary classrooms. Young Children, 55, 24-25.


Kieff, J. E., & Casbergue, R. (2000). Playful learning and teaching: Integrating play into preschool and primary programs. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Marion, M. (2003). Guidance of young children (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Press, M. R. (2006). Twenty ways to ... use music in the classroom. Intervention in School and Clinic, 41, 307-309.

Stormont, M., Espinoza, L., Knipping, N., & McCathren, R. (2003). Supporting vulnerable learners in the primary grades: Strategies to prevent early school failure. Early Childhood Research & Practice 5(2),
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Title Annotation:Classroom Idea--Sparkers
Author:McHugh, P. Sheehan
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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