Teachers' Hub

The magazine to cross ideas in early childhood education

Transition from kindergarten to school

January 2018



Most children look forward to starting school, often describing the anticipated experience in almost magical terms and frequently linking it with the expectation that they will learn to read and write. However too many children become disappointed, and some experience a kind of failure. In addition, a troubling number of them actually develop problems during the period of their kindergarten-to-school transition (Margetts, 2000).

The kindergarten-to-school transition involves rapid and, often, unanticipated change within a compressed period of time (Margetts, 2000). In addition, in the Nordic countries, children frequently begin after-school care in leisure centres at the same time as their transition from kindergarten to school, simultaneously adding another layer of complexity to their young lives.

Among other problems, the institutions children must navigate - kindergartens, schools and leisure centers (called after-school programs in some parts of the world) - do not cooperate sufficiently. With a few notable exceptions, more or less each institution lives its own self-sufficient life, isolated from its natural partners.

More, differences between the educational cultures of kindergarten and the first school experience are simply too great in most cases. Although learning has become a part of kindergarten, still Nordic kindergarten teachers typically focus on each child’s well-being and overall development. In most Nordic contexts, kindergartens emphasize play, children's being together, and practical-aesthetic activities.




The transition from preschool to school is a crucial turning point in children’s lives. It is a cultural event, which children face with emotional ambivalence: on the one hand, they long to start school, seeing it as a sign of being ‘big’, but on the other hand, they experience a feeling of nervousness and some children also express a deeper-lying anxiety (Broström, 2002; Lillemyr, 2001; Dockett & Perry, 2015). In addition, international transition literature describes a number of problems to overcome as we strive to help children make a successful transition to school (e.g. Broström & Wagner, 2003; Fabian & Dunlop, 2002). For example, there are big educational differences between preschool and school (Broström, 2001); there is a lack of communication between kindergarten and school; some children have a hazy and outdated picture of school, and some Nordic research shows that a number of children expect school to be an authoritarian place (Broström, 2002; Lillemyr 2001).

However, despite three decades of Nordic and international research on transition to school (Ballam, Perry, & Garpelin, 2017; Fabian, & Dunlop; 2002; Fabian, & Dunlop, 2007; Kienig, & Margetts, 2013; Perry, Dockett, & Petriwskyj, 2014; Ramey, & Ramey, 1998), the specific transition practice is often characterised by a lack of communication and continuity between kindergarten and school.

Also in Denmark a number of transition problems, identified in 2002 (Broström, 2002, p. 54-55), still appear in 2018:

  • Kindergarten teachers have limited knowledge of what happens in school, and school teachers have only a vague understanding of life in kindergarten
  • the two parties have different definitions of school readiness
  • educational contradictions and traditions between kindergarten and the first year at school remain significant (although there has been a concerted effort to combine play and learning)
  • there is a lack of communication between preschool and school teachers in the period leading up to children’s transition (which is of particular importance with regard to at-risk children), for example via exchange visits in preschool and school


Politicians and professionals are aware of the problems, and both kindergarten teachers and schoolteachers recognize the importance of helping children make smooth transitions into school.  Smooth school transitions help children feel secure, relaxed, and comfortable in their new environments. A fundamental goal of a school-start transition is to help young children feel suitable in school, that is, to have a feeling of well-being and belonging.

Children feel ‘suitable’ when they successfully negotiate the daily challenges of school life, including both social (peer related) and academic (content related) challenges. Feeling suitable is crucial to the child's learning and development, as well as to a fundamental and continuous sense of well-being. Research on school start shows that children who feel suitable and relaxed in school are much more likely than children who do not feel well adjusted to experience school success beyond first year in school (Ladd & Preice, 1987).

Consequently, smooth and successful transition from kindergarten to school requires attention to several related elements:

  • Child readiness or the extent to which the child has developed personal, social and intellectual competence which adults view as necessary for success in the first year of school. Children, who are not deemed “ready,” especially by their teachers in the first year of school, will be less likely to feel well suited to the environment or capable of meeting its expectations.
  • Support from parents, family and community. Adults must be equipped to help the child with all aspects of the new experience, including academic, social, and psychological.
  • A system of high quality kindergartens for children aged 3-5, which provides a rich daily life carrying its own reward. This includes learning and development as essential ingredients, along  with satisfying peer interactions, engaging  interactions between children and adults and meaningful play opportunities
  • Not only do the children need to be “school ready”, but even more, the school need to be “child ready.” That is, the teacher and the environment created must take the child’s perspectives, interests and needs into account. Environment  here refers not only to the physical environment, which must include appropriate materials for instruction and play, but also to the psychological environment, which must assist children in developing a sense of “suitability” for kindergarten, a feeling of belonging, well-being, and capacity to succeed  in this new place.


How to support children’s transition


 All involved parties - politicians, parents, kindergarten teachers, after-school teachers and school teachers – have to mobilise educational resources in order to help children make a smooth and successful transition into school and to help them feel suitable and at home in school.

Both in the Nordic countries (Ackesjö, 2013; Hogsnes, 2015) and internationally (Dockett, 2017), in recent years we have seen a large amount of research on school transitions. Either focusing on children’s transition to school in general or on more specific topics; for example, children’s concerns about being able to make friends and their struggle to establish relations to new children (Ackesjö, 2013), or how to cope with the subject mathematics in the new context of school (Perry, MacDonald, & Gervasoni, 2015).

Research on children’s transitions to school influences both policy and practice in early childhood education. In the Nordic countries, national kindergarten and school legislation and policy documents emphasise the importance of the transition to school. The Danish Government’s so-called School Start Commission called for transition activities described in a report in 2007. With reference to Broström (2013, p. 58), the transition activities mentioned include:

  • During the final year prior to starting school, prospective schoolchildren are put together in a so-called “school group” and participate in relevant goal-directed activities.
  • The school invites the child and his/her parents to visit the after-school centre and the school prior to the transition.
  • The kindergarten teacher and children visit the school prior to the transition in order to gain a better understanding of school.
  • The kindergarten teacher and children visit the after-school centre.
  • The prospective schoolteacher visits the children at their kindergarten.
  • The kindergarten teacher and schoolteacher collaborate on a document defining the child’s school readiness: a local text on children’s learning and development, which both parties agree on.
  • The kindergarten teacher and schoolteacher hold meetings prior to the transition on the individual child's life, development and school readiness.
  • Children and kindergarten teachers are involved in a number of lessons at the school prior to the transition.

When kindergarten teachers and schoolteachers co-operate on such transition activities they support children’s positive transition and school start. Nevertheless, politician, parents, kindergarten teachers and schoolteachers agree on above transition activities, still today we see a gap between the ideal and real practice, which earlier is expressed (Broström, 2002).

For that reason, too many kindergarten children do not gain sufficient experience according to what school and school life is like. They arrive at school with insufficient preparation, potentially experiencing a culture shock, which can lead to diminished well-being and lack of learning.

Thus, in kindergarten the children should achieve knowledge of what school is alike. The kindergarten can prepare the children through interesting learning activities, which cover both mathematics, science and literacy. However, not in a traditional scholastic way, when the teacher transmit knowledge directly to children. Instead, kindergarten teachers (if possible in co-operation with teachers from school) construct a play-based curriculum, where children achieve academic learning like math and literacy via play (Broström, 2010; Jensen, Hansen & Broström, 2013). In this way, children’s learning is in accordance with the kindergarten tradition at the same time it reach into children’s future life in school.


Academic learning in kindergarten via play


Kindergarten teachers have to overcome any opposition they may have to learning activities but without going to the opposite extreme and turning preschool into an extension of the school. In other words, preschool activities should combine play and learning. Introducing a play-based curriculum in kindergarten is one possible solution enabling intentional and conscious learning without disregarding the necessity and learning potential of play.

A play-based curriculum opens for teachers’ involvement in play, which makes it possible to unite children’s play and their learning (Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, Berk, & Singer, 2009; Bodrova & Leong, 2007). Here are expressed different forms of guided play inspired by Vygotsky’s ideas in The Psychology of Art (Vygotsky, 1971) and with various labels: frame play (Broström, 1999b), drama-play (Baumer, 2005) and aesthetic theme play (Lindqvist, 1995). Here “children can compose the text, improvise the roles and prepare the scenic accessories: scenery and costumes, which they can paint, stick on, cut out and join together” (Lindqvist, 1995, p. 53). Based on a shared book reading (Broström, 2010), children and their teachers create a play-world, where teachers and children play together. Such play can last for weeks or months. The idea is to move between reality and fantasy, establishing a creative and playful atmosphere while at the same time becoming familiar with the chosen theme. Here are a number of elements which are integrated:

  • Teachers and children play together, but the teachers do not dominate the play.
  • Explorative play experimenting with roles, actions and dressing up.
  • Dramatization in dialogue with the teachers and focusing on creating a product, a story.
  • ‘Reflection via dialogue’, a kind of philosophical conversation with children combined with learning dialogues.
  • The involvement of a written story and also children’s own written text


Research has documented that a group of children’s long lasting play in a classroom transformed into a shoe shop contributed to their mathematics competences (van Oers, 2011). Likewise, drama-play during the children’s first year of school (Baumer, 2005) based on the Russian folktale Baba Yaga resulted in enhanced development of language and reading skills among the participating children when compared to a control group.

In addition such play contribute to the development of a new psychological structure in the child’s mind, namely the development of the child’s learning motive. With reference to Leont’ev (1978, 1981), and Pramling (1983) the child goes through a mental transition from “Play motivation” towards “Real motivation for learning.” In “play motivation”, motivation for learning is integrated into the learning process, and the consciousness of the child’s own learning is rather vague. In contrast, a child with “real motivation for learning” believes that learning is to understand. The child understands learning as a process through which they will understand and realize something; learning as “access to” being able to do something. That implies a motivation that goes beyond the current situation.

In order to obtain such a development, I have suggested that new kinds of expansive play might be a possible method, and with that, I have argued for a new concept in the field of transition: play as transitory activity (Broström, 2007).


Final remark


Because of lack of continuity in children’s life, I have argued for different forms of cooperation between kindergarten and school, so-called bridge building. One central transition idea is a changes in the educational practice in kindergarten. A movement from children’s own free play towards a kind of play, which contain a school-oriented content.

The idea to design a play-based curriculum in kindergarten (and also in school) is to create a balance between continuity and discontinuity: Through a play-based curriculum, kindergarten children will achieve both new psychological structures, and a sense of being competent and well-performing, as long as they work with problems and content, which they are familiar with. However, at the same time they are also challenged with new school-oriented tasks. Thus, they become prepared for school start. You might say that transition to school is not only a question of building bridges between settings and arenas. For that reason, such play-based learning activities can be seen as transitory activities.

Stig Broström

Professor Emeritus,

Aarhus University, Denmark



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