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Playing Through Transitions: A New School

As part of my monthly installment ¨Playing Through Transitions¨, today we will focus on using play as a transitioning tool when your child is entering a new school.

For children, change is particularly trickier. If it’s not handled appropriately, may cause damage to the parent-child relationship. When children don’t feel prepared – and we are catching them off guard – with important decisions that directly affect them, they might feel betrayed. They now throw into question the trust that parents have carefully built.

However, this does not mean that parents should avoid change. This means that parents are responsible for giving their children appropriate tools with which to handle change. And playing helps with this. Whether it’s the change from a preschool to a ¨big school¨, or an actual change of schools, here are a few ways that play can help ease this transition.

Use the magic of art to assess your child’s emotional state

When we talk about playing, we almost immediately imagine toys. In play therapy, we often use so many more materials than just toys! And art is one of them.

A change of school means something different for every child, depending on the reason for the change. What for some might feel like a relief, for others might be a decision they must grieve. This is why – rather than assuming how your child feels – allow her/him to show you.

Studies have shown, time and time again, that art is a powerful medium to help children express their feelings. In play therapy, we often give children a variety of prompts. You can even turn it into a game. When trying to find out how a child feels about a particular situation I enjoy drawing empty circles and write prompts below each circle.

Some of the prompts you can use are:

  • How did I feel when mommy/daddy told me that I was going to change schools?
  • How do I feel about my new school?
  • How do I feel about meeting new people?

Children must then fill out the circle with a drawing of that emotion. The parent guesses, and then a followup conversation can happen. When we allow children space to unapologetically express how they feel, we are validating their emotions. And when children feel heard and validated, we are boosting their emotional wellbeing.

Use toys to recreate any future change in their dynamics

Every school has different dynamics, which students must adapt to in order to function appropriately. For example, some schools might vary in their recess time length. Your children might need to take the bus to school, instead of having parents drive them. They might stay in one class for the entire day, as opposed to change classes. Or, the use of uniforms might be a requirement they didn’t have before.

This is why it’s important for parents to find out as much as possible about how the new school works. By doing this research, parents can more accurately recreate the changes through play. This is particularly important for pre-schoolers who are now entering ¨the big school¨.  The rules and expectations change and, when possible, it’s important that young children are prepared for these changes.

Using something like a toy classroom set (similar to this one) can be of great help. Parents can make the toy characters talk to one another about these changes; use the toy teacher to express what the rules of this new school are; or, even use a toy school bus to dramatize the pickup scenario. Whatever way you use materials and toys to your advantage can help children understand and prepare better for this important change.

Use play to showcase your child’s strengths

One of the biggest concerns about change is the uncertainty. We don’t know what will happen or how it will affect us. Sometimes, these worries and anxieties make us doubt ourselves. We might feel we are not prepared to appropriately deal with change. This might lead us to face this change with insecurity and fear. Just like it might happen to us – as adults – it can happen to children.

This is why it’s important to use play as a medium to showcase their strengths. More importantly, how their strengths will help them overcome this change. It’s important to highlight their bravery, compassion, kindness, friendliness – or any other unique quality that makes your child stand out. Children need to hear their strengths at all times, but especially when they’re about to face a challenging situation.

Change is always difficult, and mostly never wanted. Adults, teens or children – we can all agree that change is tough. But, it’s a necessary part of life. It is through change that we are able to grow, and transform as human beings. It’s that messy part of life that confronts us with redefining our identity.

When children feel supported and prepared, they are able to face this challenge with flying colors. And, when they have a successful outcome from a situation they fear, their self-esteem receives a boost and they become more resilient. Resilient kids become resilient adults, capable of trusting in themselves to overcome difficulties.

Playing Through Transitions: A New School

Mariana Plata

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APA Reference
, . (2017). Playing Through Transitions: A New School. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 19, 2019, from


Last updated: 12 Oct 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 12 Oct 2017
Published on All rights reserved.