Young children learn within the context of relationships, as they observe and connect with parents, caregivers, and peers. When these social connections take place between early learners of different ages, the result can be especially positive for children’s social learning and skill-building. This article highlights some of the ways that mixed-age ECE programs can support early learning and development, and offers suggestions for educators who care for children in mixed-age settings.
Benefits of Mixed-Age Learning
Social Learning Opportunities for Younger Children
Young children can learn a variety of new skills by watching and trying to keep up with their older peers. According to Meghan Fitzgerald, founder of Tinkergarten, “Age mixing stretches younger children so that they can play in more advanced ways than they could with their same-aged peers. Young children also flourish socially under the care and emotional support of older, more experienced children.”
One of the most important benefits of mixed age classrooms is that young children become interested in trying things they observe their older peers doing. For example, a preschooler who spends time with a child in pre-k might observe the older child riding a scooter, and become inspired to try scooter riding. Without the example of the older peer, the younger child might not have considered trying out an activity that entails learning something new and building physical and gross motor skills.
Leadership & Empathy-Building Opportunities for Older Children
When preschool/pre-k aged children have a chance to interact with younger children, they get to discover and express their leadership abilities by showing their younger peers how to practice skills like putting on socks and shoes, holding and writing with a pencil, and more.
Sharing their own experiences can help older children to become more understanding of differences in skill levels while also developing a sense of empathy for little ones. An article from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction explains that, “Mixed age grouping can provide older children with the opportunity to be helpful, patient, and tolerant of younger peers’ competencies, and thus give them some of the desirable early experiences of being nurturing that underlie parenting and helping others who are different from oneself.”
Fewer Disruptive Transitions
In a typical early childhood center, children transition between different classrooms, depending on their developmental age. When children attend a program in which multiple ages are mixed in the same learning space, it can help reduce the frequency of these transitions. This can be beneficial for children and families, as well as for caregivers, as everyone has more time to build connections with one another.
Fewer transitions can be especially helpful for children who struggle with change or who are more likely to feel anxious. Spending more time with the same teachers and peers can help create stability and predictability.
Supporting Mixed Age Learning: Tips for Educators
While there are many benefits to mixed-age learning, it is important to recognize a few potential challenges associated with mixed age settings. You’ll want to have some approaches in your educator toolbox to help you address challenging situations.
Opportunities Beyond the Classroom
If you don’t work in a mixed-age classroom, consider finding ways for the children in your care to connect with peers of different ages – such as arranging a shared activity between classrooms or organizing mixed age outdoor play activities. These opportunities can offer rich learning, socializing, and skill-building experiences.
Select Suitable Materials
It can be challenging to select materials that are suitable, safe, and engaging for the variety of developmental stages in a mixed-age learning group. Offering open-ended materials such as blocks, clay, and other items that allow children to create without an intended outcome, allows children to utilize the materials in a way that aligns with their individual levels of development.
When working with children of different age groups, it is important to have an understanding of the typical developmental stages associated with each age. Early learning providers will need a basic understanding of a broader range of developmental stages and milestones in order to support the progress of the different ages of children in their care.
To help with this, Good2Know Network recently shared developmental milestone printable flyers with quick and easy tips for supporting little ones. Having resources like this available in the classroom can serve as useful reminders for educators working with a variety of ages and developmental stages.
Support Collaboration with Gentle Guidance
Children will require guidance as they learn how to interact with peers of different ages. It can be helpful for educators to remain close by so they can talk with the children about the ways they can support peers of every age and skill level. Older children might need reminders about the limitations of some of their younger peers, while younger children might require encouragement to engage with the big kids.
After you have offered support, try to take a step back and allow the children some time to practice interacting with one another. Observe the types of skills you notice them working on together and provide encouragement. For example, when you see an older child guiding a younger one in an activity, offer praise for their kindness and leadership. If you see a younger child taking a risk or trying something new, acknowledge their efforts and encourage them to keep it up!