Variety is the spice of life, and when it comes to early childhood education and care, a mix of ages can be a very good thing.
Instead of keeping younger and older children separate, mixed-age grouping (or family grouping) brings different ages together, so let’s look at the practicalities and benefits of this approach.
How does mixed-aged grouping work?
Cooloon Children’s Centre Inc. and Milford Lodge Child Care Centre are two great examples of mixed-aged grouping:
- Cooloon Children’s Centre Inc. is a 45-place, long day care service in Tweed Heads, New South Wales. It has two playrooms (one for under threes and one for over threes), plus a cot room and a large shared yard.
At this service, the day starts with families putting their child’s bag in the room that matches their age, then going into the playroom that the child feels most comfortable in.
Different aged siblings have the opportunity to play in the same room if they like, and as the day progresses, children can choose who they’ll play with and where they’ll spend their time (outside, or inside in either playroom).
In the first half of the day, there’s a ‘shared progressive morning tea’, then children go to their age-grouped room for lunch, rest, sleep or quiet activities. Over the course of the afternoon, children get the chance to share the two playrooms and outside space again, mixing up all ages.
- Milford Lodge Child Care Centre is an Excellent-rated service in Buderim, Queensland that recently switched from a traditional model of age-grouping, to a ‘free range’ mixed-aged model, after consulting extensively with families.
This service has more than 90 children attending each day, and says the move to mixed age programming and practice has brought about swift, positive changes. Children’s play and behaviour has changed in good ways, and sibling families are happy that their children can start and end their day in the same room and share meals and playtime.
It’s also interesting to note that Milford Lodge uses a ‘key educator approach’, which involves children often choosing a key person to be their main source of security for numerous years. This means that a child in the kindergarten room continues to start each day, and share meals, with the key educator they connected with back in their baby room.
What benefits flow on from mixed-age grouping?
Judy Radich is a Nominated Supervisor at Cooloon Children’s Centre Inc. and she’s enthusiastic about mixed-age grouping.
She says this approach, ‘Has great potential to support children’s social and emotional learning’ and that it, ‘Allows educators to really see children as individuals and meet their very different individual needs.’
Ms Radich explains that:
- Mixed-age grouping provides opportunities for younger and older children to learn from each other, with older, more competent children often providing leadership and support to those who are younger and less capable.
- Siblings get opportunities to play with, and near, each other for long stretches of time if they want to (which can help younger siblings settle in to care).
- Children with no young siblings get the chance to be a ‘big sister’ or ‘big brother’ and form relationships with children of different ages.
- Children get to practice turn-taking and sharing, and there may be less conflict over toys and equipment because different ages have different needs and interests.
- Play is often more complex because older children extend younger ones’ ideas, and littlies follow the ideas suggested to them and get involved in the play.
- Young children are exposed to more advanced language levels and complexity, which develops their communication skills. In turn, older children learn how to change their language, behaviour and expectations to meet the age of the children they’re playing with, and often become skilled at ‘reading’ and responding to younger children’s non-verbal clues.
- Shy and less confident preschoolers get the chance to mix with younger children to build their confidence. Over time, this helps them interact with kids their own age and older. Children with developmental delays can also benefit from playing with younger children who share their interests or abilities.
- Children get the opportunity to be part of a diverse group and become tolerant of others, with support from educators.
Milford Lodge Educational Leader, Nancy Andrews also sees the benefits of mixed-age grouping.
She says that, ‘Straight after we made the move, the nature of the children’s play began to change,’ with the older children nurturing and helping the younger children, and the younger ones keen to spend time with the older kids.
When it came to behaviour, Ms Andrews says, ‘The children began to act completely differently. There was more sharing and less competition than when the children were separated into age groups.’
She says the children’s behaviour on play equipment changed too, with older children manoeuvring carefully around younger ones, instead of just pushing past.
Are there any concerns around mixed-aged grouping in child care?
Ms Radich acknowledges that some parents might worry about:
- Older children overwhelming younger children;
- Older children being under-stimulated; or
- Younger children being influenced by older children so that they ‘grow up too fast.’
However, she says, ‘We have found these fears are no different to other ways that children are grouped, as even in children who are grouped by age there is a wide range of skill level, maturity level and experiences that impact on how and where children play and how they interact and get along with others.’
Educators in mixed-age grouping also take care to adapt the curriculum and use different teaching strategies to support every child’s development and benefit the group as a whole.
There are enriching play experiences for all ages, and opportunities for children to challenge themselves at their level. Although preschoolers could choose to play with preschoolers, and toddlers with toddlers, it appears that mixed-age grouping is popular with children.
With opportunities to learn, teach, play and bond, it has benefits for all children, young and older.