Parents around the country, silently rejoice with me – it is time to go BACK TO SCHOOL!!!

That said, this time of year can also be murky with uncertain newness.

As with any change, going back to school can bring up a lot of emotions for our kids.  The way I like to talk through this stuff and also process big feelings is through play.

Play this Game When you Go Back to School

Kids love pretend play because it is fun.  That said, they likely crave play for serious developmental reasons.

Make believe games like “doctor” or “store” and most certainly, “school” let kids act out real-life scenarios in environments that they can control. They can take on roles that they normally don’t get to like actually being the doctor or the person in charge of the ice cream! Additionally, the playing allows them practice repeating and reinforcing bravery.

Taking on different roles allows children the unique opportunity to learn social skills such as communication, problem solving, and empathy.
The Need for Pretend Play in Child Development, Scientific American

Playing a game out of going Back to School is a sweet way to connect with your kids’ emotions.  Furthermore, dramatic play allows them to work through any fears or concerns they might be having.

Watch this video and see the wonderful weigh-in from my colleague, Dr. Mandi White-Ajmani of Small Brooklyn Psychology.

Here’s how to play

  • Pick a character:  This could be a favorite animal, a creature from fantasy (dragon, fairy, etc), or a beloved character from a book or show.
  • Get into the body of the character:  In class we “reach up and grab” the body.  Kids love the imagination at play here.  No need to actually get into costumes, let the body do the work.  Kids can get place a unicorn horn on, or put on a tail – all with their imagination.
  • Get into the brain of the character – are they excited, nervous, brave to go to school?  Each character that you play around with should – and will – have a different relationship to going to school. This will help your children understand different perspective and points of view, even though we are talking about creatures and animals!
  • Establish a “Home” and a “School” physically in the space:  Make these two places as far away from each other as possible so that they play comes in with the journey from the one to the other.
  • At school set up a task that has to be done.  Each character needs to learn something different in their own way.  Give the characters something to do that mirrors a skill your own child has recently mastered.  Here are some examples, Specifically for the K or pre-K:
    • singing the alphabet (as if you were a bird),
    • listing all the colors of the rainbow (as if you were a mermaid),
    • telling a funny joke (like a clownfish),
    • showing off your table-manners (like a princess),
    • counting to 20 – as you mix a potion (as if you were a witch).
    • Sing head-shoulders-knees-and-toes (as if you were the scarecrow from Oz)

Set up a signal that means “end of school” where the characters, and the teacher – go back to start.

Shake off the character and play it again.

The idea is to tackle a lot of different characters during the game and do a lot of different silly things. Think about the basic skills like counting, alphabet, colors and simple songs so that the challenge is in staying in character, not in the actual task.


  • You can think about – and write down – all the characters ahead of time that tickle your child’s fancy.  Make the list with them and then cut out the names and pull them from the proverbial hat.
  • Make a similar list of the tasks. There is something wonderfully liberating, and funny, about a random mash-up of character and activity. In this way you can participate fully with your child as opposed to playing the teacher.
  • If you do have roles, make sure you switch it up, let the child dictate the activity and character, or practice turn-taking with siblings and friends if you are playing in a group.

Transitions are Key

Getting out of the house is a transition, getting to bed is a transition, even coming to the table to eat is a transition.  However, the most intense of them all, perhaps, is going back to school.  “Transition” is one of those words that I never really cared about before I became a mom, and now that I am one, I’m kind obsessed with it.

Here are some tips I (attempt to)! use to make those little changes just a little easier.

Prepare your Kids

My son really loves to know what is going to happen next.  Let’s face it, we all do.  I love the Rule of Three trick that Eva Ruiz of Mi Casita taught me when I first dropped my not-yet-two-year-old son off at daycare.

Rule of Three/Four

Whenever possible, communicate a nano-schedule of what is going to happen. For really young kids, starting preschool or a daycare, start with a sequence of 3, so it is easier for them to process and retain the information. At then end (the third thing!) is the thing they are hoping for – like “Mom is going to pick you up.”

So, an example would be like, “You are going to play some games, eat a snack, go outside and then I will pick you up.”  Of course it is essential to know the basic schedule in the school or camp before you start randomly listing things.

Don’t be shy to communicate with your child’s teacher about the flow of events so you can pass it along.  If this trick works you can use it for not just going back to school, but any time there is a drop-off playdate, party, camp, new babysitter or in any moment where the anxiety of an unknown situation feels overwhelming.

Since, in the summer, we were going to lots of different camp programs, each with it’s own vibe, kids and expectation, I would glean from a welcome letter some of the basics and then pass it along to my son so he would feel a little more confident in each program.

Use a Timer

Much like a Pavlovian dog that I’ve trained, my son has a fairly predictably reaction to the timer going off – he knows it is transition time.  I started using the timer way back during the “terrible twos” as a way to say – “It’s not me that needs to leave the playground, the timer says so.”  The sound itself seemed more powerful, certain and solid than just me nagging away, and so we use it quite often, even three years later.

The best thing about it is it actually helps ME be consistent and stick to my word.  I can say “Five more minutes of playtime until bath!”, but if I don’t keep track, then 5 minutes can turn into 15 or 30…and then my word isn’t really good.  Whereas if I set a timer and it goes off, and I obey it, it shows that I mean what I say and I’m more likely to be taken seriously.

  • Find a sound together that is assertive yet not panic-inducing (so not the car-horn sound on the iPhone!).
  • Have your kid help you set the timer (on the phone, Alexa, or just decide how many minutes together)
  • Remind them what is going to happen when the timer goes off
  • Stick to your word and make it all happen swiftly, even as the timer is still going off
  • Don’t turn the timer off until the transition is complete.

Collaborate on the To-dos and the Schedule as You Go Back to School

Morning time is crunch time.  Nothing much more to say about it.  And in this back to school time, we feel it so much more acutely.

Leaving the lackadaisical summer wake-up schedule, piecemeal camps and ad hoc babysitters for the structure and consistency of going back to school can really throw kids for a loop.

Work together with your kids to figure out, and then delegate all that has to happen.  Just like my take on chores and cleaning up, kids can be involved in an age-appropriate way in getting out of the house.

Layer in some things that you know they will like to do (pick out their after-school snack, say) along with some other things (wash your face) in the schedule.  I think listing all that has to happen before you get out the door and helping to hold them accountable for some of it can really help.

Make a list of what has to happen, together figure out the right order, and involve your kid as much as is age-appropriate in getting out the door.

In our Child’s Play NY classrooms – especially since I’ve become a mom – we are aware to let kids know the schedule of the class or camp.  Even before a birthday party, we huddle with the birthday kid and give them a rundown of the playing.  On these first days especially, this creates such a collaborative vibe (some classes even come up with the order together) and eases any natural feelings of uncertainty.

Get in Touch With Emotions

Play the game Foot Phone – talk to kids in creative ways about their feelings through play.

Get a calming routine that works for your child, whether it is breathing or a chant, give them a touchstone that they can go back to when they are feeling overwhelmed.

Try a mindfulness game like I Spy or Test Your Touch to ground kids in the present if they are feeling overwhelmed.

Put the Fun on the Calendar

Back to school doesn’t have to mean back to serious.  Ideally, back to school is a time to explore all your city has to offer, and take advantage of the beautiful fall weather to get moving too.  I find that talking about the exciting plans for the weekend or after-school gets that dopamine and serotonin flowing even during the weekday slog!  Get a calendar for your kid and write in all that there is to look forward to.

While the weather is still lovely, make sure you get lots of time to play outside.  Here are some dramatic play twists on classic outdoor games published on the Mt Sinai Parenting site for a little bit of inspiration.  For my New York readers interested in biking, I was excited to learn about the free bike riding classes with Bike NYC and am hopeful that this fall they can help my son’s transition from training wheels!

Finally, the most exciting thing for us to put on the calendar is going to see theater.  We’ve gotten into Show Score where you can see all the theater listings in NY for the really littles (helpful when friends are in town) to the more sophisticated Broadway plays for date night, with all the discounts and reviews in one place. Show Score also did a great feature on Child’s Play NY.  Exposing kids to stories and characters is the best way that I know to develop empathy and we could all use a whole lot more of this these days.

Please chime in with your favorite ways to help kids transition to back to school!

Thanks for reading, watching and playing!



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