If you’re a parent of more than one child, or spend time with children of varying ages, you may already see the benefits of those children interacting with each other. In early learning, while we arrange for children of similar ages or development together most of the time, we do make time and space for children to spend time with older and younger children. Why? There’s a lot of research supporting children of various ages and abilities spending time together. We’ll look at a few of these studies and hear from some of our Little Scholars educators who can attest to the advantages of mixing things up!

As an early education provider, we tend to group children together who share similar abilities, who are at similar stages of development or of similar ages. The benefits of this include:

Keeping children together of similar also means they’re stimulated appropriately at each age. Educators can tailor the curriculum to meet the specific developmental needs and milestones common to that age group, making learning more targeted.

As well, being with peers at the same developmental stage allows for more accurate assessment of a child’s progress and needs, aiding in early identification of any learning or developmental challenges, and children of the same age often share similar interests and play preferences, making it easier to form friendships and social bonds.

With a narrower age range, the skill gap between the most and least advanced children in the class is reduced, making group activities more cohesive, and children may feel more at ease and less intimidated when surrounded by peers who are at the same developmental stage, boosting their confidence in social and learning situations.

It also allows educators to be able to use age-appropriate language and teaching methods that resonate with the entire room, making instructions and lessons more effective.

The studios at Little Scholars

It’s of course true that within ages of studios, for example the nursery, the milestone range can be large – a six month old infant isn’t at the same place a 12-month-old is, and even a 15 month old, but they’re similar enough in their needs that it makes sense to group them together. Our educators plan experiences that focus on movement skills, language development, fine motor development, and strengthening of developmental milestones based on the interests of the babies and research.

For toddlers, who are roughly 18 months to three years old, most are walking by this stage, some of them are learning to speak, sharing with other children and becoming potty trained. For toddlers, the curriculum includes a lot of opportunities for little ones to move their bodies and expel some of that endless energy, but a big focus is on communication and language development, which is why we help your child get to know sounds, words and language, including early literacy and numeracy and social and emotional development.

Then of course, there are our three to five-year-olds, who are further developing their language and literacy skills, fine and gross motor development and more. They are learning to work together in groups as well as individually, all in the build-up to formal schooling.

This is all to say there’s important reasons why our little scholars generally are grouped within similar ages and abilities in their studios. But this does not mean we don’t want them interacting with other children! The opposite, in fact.

The theorists who supported mixed-age grouping in early childhood

 

The idea to mix aged groups in early learning is of course not a new concept. Here’s two of many theorists of early childhood who supported the idea of bringing children together of mixed age and abilities.

Maria Montessori, the founder of the Montessori method, was a strong advocate for mixed-age classrooms. She believed that older children could serve as role models for younger ones, fostering a sense of community and collaborative learning.

“One of the most important aspects of our education system is the use of the mixed age group which allows all the children to find what is suitable for them, irrespective of their age, and which allows the younger children a graded series of models for imitation, and the older ones the opportunity to reinforce their own knowledge by teaching what they know.”

Now, Montessori classrooms often have children of varying ages working together, which she believed promoted social and emotional development.

Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, also supported the idea of mixed-age play through his theory of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). According to Vygotsky, children can learn more when they interact with peers who are slightly more advanced than they are. This aligns well with the concept of mixed-age play, where older children can guide younger ones, helping them to reach higher levels of understanding and skill.

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Theo (5) and little sister Mila (3) often get to spend time with each other at our Nerang campus, despite their age difference!

The benefits of mixing ages in early education

The benefits to having children visit with different age groups are plentiful.

Older children provide leadership and support to younger ones, enhancing skills and confidence for both.

At all of our campuses, there are several sets of siblings. By allowing siblings to interact, it can help younger ones adjust to the care environment.

Even if children don’t have siblings at their campus, mixing with younger children gives them the chance to take on ‘big sibling’ roles.

The benefits also include:

  • Improved social skills – mixing age groups promotes turn-taking, sharing, and reduces conflicts as children have different needs and interests
  • Complex play – older children elevate the play ideas of younger ones, making play more engaging and creative
    Language development – Younger children are exposed to advanced language, while older ones learn to adapt their communication
  • Confidence boost – Spending time with other children of varying ages helps shy or less confident children build social skills by interacting with younger peers

Fosters tolerance and diversity, benefiting children with developmental delays as well.

“I believe that children should have the ability to socialise with children of various age groups,” says Claire, the educational leader at Little Scholars Nerang. “Allowing opportunities for siblings to group together while at the service can assist children to feel a sense of belonging and ease separation anxiety throughout the day.”

For younger children, they can learn from a peer more knowledgeable than themselves, it teaches them problem solving skills and more, says Claire. For the older children, it teaches them nurturing, patience and understanding.

Claire shared a story of one mixed age grouping of two children who weren’t related.

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Jacob and Finn are six years apart, share a birthday and have a unique bond at Little Scholars Nerang

“Jacob and Finn are six years apart. Finn began his Little Scholars journey at four months old and took an immediate liking to Jacob aged six at the time. Throughout their friendship, Jacob has assisted Finn to learn how to talk, build and walk. Finn shows great excitement to see Jacob each day by looking for him and can now ask where he is. Finn and Jacob spend time reading and playing together. Jacob uses the abecedarian approach of see, show, say when reading to Finn to build his cognitive skills more specifically language. Each morning and afternoon they spend time together and Finn continues to develop his skill set.

The research

Mixed age grouping for children struggling socially

In 1990, a study in the United States looked at how being in a group with children of different ages could help preschoolers who were having a hard time making friends. The study had 24 children who were either acting out or keeping to themselves. These little ones were put into one of three groups:

  • A group where they played with a younger child who was good at making friends.
  • A group where they played with a child their own age.
  • A group where they didn’t get any special playtime.

The results showed that the children who played with younger, socially skilled children improved the most. They were more likely to make friends and were less likely to act out or keep to themselves.

So, this study tells us that mixing children of different ages can really help those who are struggling to make friends. It can boost their social skills and help them get along better with others.

Complex play in mixed age groups

Another American study found that children in mixed-age classrooms were more likely to engage in complex play modes than children in same-age classrooms.

Over a course of 18 months, there were 47 children who participated. The researchers, from George Mason University, used a variety of methods to collect data, including direct observation, parent questionnaires, and teacher reports.

One of the key findings of the study was that children in mixed-age classrooms interacted more with their same-age peers over time. The researchers suggest that this is because children learn from each other. For example, older children may teach younger children new skills, and younger children may help older children to develop their social skills.

The study also found that older children in mixed-age classrooms became more like younger children, and younger children became more like older children. This is known as bidirectional socialisation. The researchers suggest that bidirectional socialisation may benefit both older and younger children. For example, older children may learn to be more patient and nurturing, and younger children may learn to be more independent and self-reliant.

Overall, the study provides evidence that mixed-age classrooms can have a positive impact on children’s social and behavioral development.

Vocabulary growth in mixed-age groups

A Danish study found that children in mixed-age classrooms had greater gains in vocabulary growth than children in same-age classrooms.

The researchers followed the same group of children over time. The study began when the children were two years and nine months old and ended when they were six years and 11 months old.

The researchers didn’t specify how many trials they conducted, but they did report that the study included 2,743 children. The minimum age difference between children in the same classroom was six months, and the maximum age difference was 24 months. The researchers found classrooms with a maximum age range of 24 months were associated with the greatest gains in vocabulary growth.

To measure children’s vocabulary development, the researchers used a standardised vocabulary test. They gave this test to the children at the beginning of the study and again at the end of the study.

The researchers did not directly observe how the children interacted with each other. However, they did collect data on children’s social interactions through teacher reports and parent questionnaires.

Overall, the study provides evidence that mixed-age classrooms can support children’s language development. However, more research is needed to understand the specific mechanisms through which mixed-age grouping benefits children.

How teachers support mixed age groups

Another study, this time from Sweden in 2022, focused on how preschool teachers implement curricula in different age group settings. The study involved 3,340 children between the ages of two years and nine months and six years and eleven months, from multiple preschools and was based on interviews with teachers.

The study aimed to answer two main questions:

  • How do preschool teachers express that the curriculum is implemented in age-homogeneous groups vs. mixed-age groups?
  • What are the teaching strategies in the different age formations?

In age-homogeneous groups, teachers felt they could focus on specific age-related goals, whereas in mixed-age groups, the curriculum was more flexible, allowing children to learn at their own pace. The study concluded that both age-homogeneous and mixed-age groups have their own sets of advantages and challenges when it comes to implementing the curriculum.

Researchers focused on the impact of mixed-age groups on children’s development, particularly in vocabulary. The study found that mixed-age groups could be positively linked to individual children’s development, especially in vocabulary.

Advantages of mixed-age groups:

  • Children can contribute different knowledge and experiences, helping each other
  • No need for children to compare themselves; there’s always someone who knows more or less
  • Allows for learning at their own level and pace
  • Teachers can focus on spontaneous teaching based on children’s play and interests.

Disadvantages or challenges:

  • Requires special teacher attention to ensure every child has learned what they need to transition from preschool to school
  • Teachers have the responsibility to motivate children to become interested in the learning process.

The study suggests that mixed-age groups can be beneficial for children’s development, but they require a specific type of teaching approach.

As you have now read, the benefits of mixed-age play in early learning are plentiful and supported by a wealth of research and educational theories. While it’s common to group children by age or developmental stage, there’s undeniable value in allowing children of different ages to interact. Studies have shown that this kind of grouping can enhance social skills, encourage more complex play, and even boost vocabulary development. Our educators at Little Scholars witness these benefits daily and incorporate mixed-age interactions into our curriculum.

However, it’s not just about mixing ages for the sake of it; it’s about creating a dynamic learning environment that caters to the individual needs of each child. Whether it’s older children mentoring the younger ones or everyone learning to communicate at different levels, the advantages are clear. But it’s not without its challenges; it requires a nuanced approach from educators to ensure that each child’s developmental needs are met. So, while there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to early education, the evidence points towards the value of a mixed-age setting in helping our little scholars grow into well-rounded individuals.

Resources:

The Case for Mixed-Age Grouping in Early Education (1990) by Lilian G. Katz, Demetra Evangelou, and Jeanette Allison Hartman

The social and behavioral ecology of mixed-age and same-age preschool classrooms: A natural experiment (2002) by Sarah Caverly and Adam Winsler.

Does mixing age groups in early childhood education settings support children’s language development? (2017) by Nina S. Mounts, Jaipaul L. Roopnarine, and Peter B. Smith.

Teaching and learning in age-homogeneous groups versus mixed-age groups in the preschool (2022) by Lena O Magnusson and Kerstin Bäckman

Everyday life is full of risks and challenges, and at Little Scholars, we believe children need opportunities to develop the skills associated with managing risk and making informed judgements about risks from a very young age. Risky play helps to develop important life skill learnings such as; building resilience and persistence, critical-thinking skills, self-confidence and even extends their frustration tolerance.

 

We get it—no one wants to see little ones get hurt. It’s almost instinctual to hover nearby in case they stumble or to call out ‘be careful!’ when they’re taking risks. But could this actually be sending the message that we don’t trust their capabilities or instincts? Historical trends show that since the 1960s, there’s been a shift in how we view children. Once considered competent, responsible, and resilient, the modern perspective leans more towards constant supervision and protection. What used to be unrestricted and often unsupervised outdoor play has transitioned to structured, closely watched, and frequently indoor activities.

A lot of research has been devoted around the world to risky or adventurous play, and how parental attitudes as well as other factors played a part in children’s activities.

Risk and parents' attitudes

Recent research from Deakin University examined the connection between parent attitudes towards risk and injury and children’s adventurous play and physical activity. The study aims to explore the potential advantages of adventurous play in promoting moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) in children. It found while parents want their children to have opportunities to develop the above mentions skills associated with managing risky play, upwards of 78 per cent of the 645 Australian parents who participated in the study had a low tolerance of risk when presented with a series of play scenarios. More mothers than fathers who participated were more uneasy of the risky possibilities in the play scenarios, though it’s worth highlighting about 80 per cent of the online survey participants were female.
But, the researchers found children of parents with more positive attitudes to risk and injury had more adventurous play.
 
Adventurous play has the potential to promote moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) in children. Engaging in adventurous play, such as climbing high structures, riding bikes or scooters fast, or play-fighting, requires children to exert physical effort and energy. These types of activities often involve higher levels of intensity and movement, which can contribute to increased MVPA.

By participating in adventurous play, children are more likely to engage in activities that elevate their heart rate and breathing, leading to increased energy expenditure. This can help children meet the recommended guidelines for MVPA, which is at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily.

‘Educators facilitate gradual exposure to controlled risks, allowing children to develop confidence and judgment, ultimately empowering them to make informed decisions when navigating different situations.’

-Kristen Guymer

Adventurous play also offers opportunities for children to develop and enhance their motor skills, coordination, balance, and strength. These physical skills are essential for overall physical development and can contribute to improved physical fitness.

Furthermore, adventurous play provides children with opportunities to explore their environment, take risks, and challenge themselves. This type of play promotes creativity, problem-solving, and decision-making skills, as children navigate and overcome obstacles. It also fosters a sense of adventure, independence, and self-confidence.

Overall, adventurous play can be a fun and engaging way for children to meet their daily MVPA requirements while promoting physical fitness, skill development, and personal growth.

One Canadian study looked at the benefits presented by encouraging risky play in early learning settings. Researchers measured changes in play, social behaviour, psychological wellbeing, and physical activity in 45 children aged two to five years. Their findings showed significant decreases in depressive states, antisocial behaviour and moderate to vigorous (unsafe) physical activity, and increases in play with natural materials, independent play, and prosocial behaviours. Early Childhood Educators observed improved socialisation, problem-solving, focus, self-regulation, creativity and self-confidence, and reduced stress, boredom and injury.
 
Research shows that engaging in risky play can actually reduce the risk of injury, too. Something parents and educators can do is teach young children to risk-assess.

Risky play and adventure awaits at Little Scholars

At Little Scholars, we recognise the importance of letting children take risks and gaining confidence in their own bodies and abilities. Educators employ various methods to teach children how to assess risks, regardless of it being a familiar or unfamiliar setting, according to Kristen Guymer, a lead educator in the early learners studio at our Pacific Pines campus.

“We emphasise the importance of careful observation, encouraging children to identify potential hazards by looking, listening, and even touching when safe,” she says. “Educators also foster critical thinking by asking questions that prompt risk assessment, such as, ‘What could go wrong if…?’ We promote collaboration and communication, allowing children to discuss and share their perceptions of risk.”

Furthermore, Kristen shares, educators facilitate gradual exposure to controlled risks, allowing children to develop confidence and judgment, ultimately empowering them to make informed decisions when navigating different situations.

Before embarking on Bush Kinder experiences or similar activities, educators guide children through risk assessments:

  • Safety briefings – educators provide clear safety guidelines and explain the potential risks associated with an activity. This emphasises the importance of following instructions and identifying safe boundaries
  • Skill development – educators gradually introduce and build essential skills, such as climbing, or using tools, ensuring children progressively develop the physical and cognitive abilities required to manage risks
  • Reflection and discussion – in the older studios, after each activity, educators engage in discussions with children to reflect on their experiences, encouraging them to identify challenges they overcame, risks they managed, and lessons learned.

Hayley Yates, a lead educator at our Yatala campus agrees that discussions with children previously help prepare for and mitigate risk.

“We support risky play through our discussions with the children,” Hayley says. “If it’s something that has a big risk, example climbing trees, we talk about what we should look out for when climbing, how big the branches need to be to be safe and things of that nature. For both the younger and older children we use language like ‘Notice how this is this? Another example would be walking on slippery rocks, I would say ‘notice how that rock is wet? That might be slippery’, then giving them the option to continue to that rock or a different one.”

Hayley says through important discussions educators are guiding children by asking questions and role modelling safe behaviours.

We offer our little scholars the chance to get away from the get outside and enjoy the natural playground our environment offers us. It also allows them to assess and take risks that are so pertinent to their development, wellbeing and even their memories. Bush kinder is that reset, that step outside into fresh and get an education completely unique to any other they receive or will receive.

What is Bush Kinder?

Bush Kinder is a nature-based learning program designed to help children develop an appreciation for the outdoors and its many wonders. Bush kinder offers children an education that is a tremendous complement to the enriched educational program they receive at Little Scholars.
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At Little Scholars, we believe that spending time in nature has numerous benefits for children, including improved physical health and strength, enhanced cognitive development, and better emotional regulation. Through our Bush Kinder program, children have the opportunity to connect with nature on a deep level, learn about the environment, be challenged beyond the classroom, and engage in meaningful, hands-on experiences.

During our Bush Kinder sessions, children have the opportunity to engage in a range of activities, from nature walks and bird watching to building shelters and learning about indigenous culture. Children climb, scramble, jump and more in nature’s playground.

In this natural environment, children encounter diversity, novelty, challenges, and even some calculated risks. Their senses come alive as they engage with sticks, tree holes, water, rocks, sand, and dirt—nature’s abundant toys.

Our Bush Kinder educators are highly experienced and qualified in outdoor education and child development. They are passionate about providing children with meaningful learning experiences in a safe and supportive environment. We take the safety and security of our children very seriously. Our Bush Kinder program is conducted in a safe and secure outdoor environment, with strict protocols in place to ensure the well-being of all children.

But risky play is not limited to bush kinder.

Our outdoor areas are thoughtfully designed, including forts and equipment, all with intention of helping children navigate risk, endure challenges and build motor and fine motor skills.

Helena Vairy, an educator at our Ormeau Village campus, shares an example of how she helps children assess risk and how to complete ‘risky’ tasks safely.

“The way I like to teach children to access risk are by providing them with the materials which are needed and seeing how the children act on these,” Helena says. “

“The other week myself and a couple of the Kindergarten children set up the sandpit I placed the crates in a line and stacked one on top of the other. One child Mahli said ‘this looks like a runway maybe we can walk and then jump off the crates.’ What a great idea this was, the children were nervous at first but I stood right next to them to help. I asked the children, ‘do you think you can jump off the crated and land with your feet flat?’ I then demonstrated and the children too were off jumping.

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At the start of this experience, I asked the children, ‘would you like me to hold your hand while you jump?’ or ‘let’s count to three and then jump,’ this encouraged the children to not feel nervous and that someone was there to support them if they needed them. Five minutes after setting this experience up, there was a line up to jump off the crates the children all started saying ‘1 2 3 jump all together!’ We had a helper who racked the jump area to make the faller soft if their peers needed it.’

We love this story because it shares how children lead their own learning experience, consider risks, and support and encourage each other.

All of our campuses have recently introduced woodworking stations, designed to help children exercise their creative and critical thinking skills. It allows them to express their ideas and figure out solutions to their projects. It’s also a great way to introduce risky play, as the risks are managed and educators are actively supervising, but woodworking teaches children about safety and understanding risk.

“As they pick up their hammers, they’re getting ready to work on their pincer grip,” says Katie, educational leader at our Parkwood campus. “Things like that prepare them for school. In order to prepare to help the children use these safely, we’ve been having group discussions and asking them different questions about how to use the tools, what they think the tools do and what they can make in the future.”

It’s clear that risky play isn’t just about letting children run wild; it’s a calculated approach to help them develop essential life skills. At Little Scholars, we’re not just about keeping your little ones safe; we’re about preparing them for life. Our educators are trained to guide children in assessing risks, making it a learning experience that builds confidence and safe judgment. So, parents, it might be time to loosen the reins a bit. Let’s trust our children to make informed decisions, even if it means resisting the urge to shout, ‘Be careful!’ every so often. After all, life is full of risks and challenges, and what better time to learn how to navigate them than in the formative early years? You’ll be amazed at what they can achieve when given the freedom to explore, assess, and conquer.

We know you want to give your child the best possible start in life. We foster nurturing relationships between our educators and your child, building and gaining their trust so we can support your child as they take on risks and challenges safely and confidently. Book a tour today to get started!

Further reading:

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