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

Because we offer a transition to school program through our kindy and pre-kindy studios, from time to time, our educators and early childhood teachers are asked, ‘when are you going to teach my child to read?’ to which our answer is, we already are! But perhaps, not in the way parents expect.

The expectation from parents sometimes seems to be that your child will finish their time with Little Scholars and walk into prep knowing how to read, but that’s not exactly our aim.

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Learning to read really starts from infanthood, and is a big process. In fact, research has found newborns’ brains are prewired to be receptive to seeing words and letters. This means babies are already getting ready to read at birth. The relevant part of the brain, known as the “visual word form area” (VWFA), is connected to the language network of the brain, and was discovered by researchers at Ohio State University, who analysed the brain scans of 40 one-week-old babies, as part of the Developing Human Connectome Project.

Researchers compared these to similar scans from 40 adults who participated in a separate Human Connectome Project. The VWFA is next to another part of visual cortex that processes faces, and it was reasonable to believe that there wasn’t any difference in these parts of the brain in newborns. Because as visual objects, faces have some of the same properties as words do, such as needing high spatial resolution for humans to see them correctly.

But the researchers found that even in newborns, the VWFA was different from the part of the visual cortex that recognises faces, primarily because of that connection to the language processing part of the brain.

Lead researcher Zeynep M. Saygin’s team is now scanning the brains of three and four-year-old children to learn more about what the VWFA does before children learn to read.

Research has also showed babies can differentiate their native language from another language when they’re only hours old, which means they begin processing language in the womb. And, amazingly, studies have also found that at birth, the infant brain can perceive the full set of 800 or so sounds, called phonemes. Phonemes form every word in every language.

People can’t learn to read without understanding language, so your child has been working on learning to read since birth!

How Little Scholars helps your child with language development

We encourage language development in many ways understanding that oral language is a significant aspect of early literacy, educators engage in song, rhyming and make use of picture books, to tell a story. Through our discussions and interactions with the children, and observations watching children play and what they’re interested in, we extend on their interests as part of our educational and intentional approach. So, for example, if educators see two children playing with toy dinosaurs, they may chat with them about why they’re interested. Then, they may have a conversation with the class about who else might be interested in dinosaurs. Based on the conversation, if many of the children are, they may set up sensory experiences, art opportunities and get relevant books on the topic of dinosaurs and read them together.

We also use words visually for many of our activities, even if they aren’t book-related, so that children begin to recognise words and associate them. Our environments place great emphasis to embed literacy print across all play spaces, this supports rich language experiences. Educators model words through children’s play, for example, when a child is engaged in block play, the educator will discuss the activity with them, exposing children to words, such as ‘you are putting a block on the top,’ (or underneath, or on the side.) These elements of language are also known as ‘positional language’ and introduce children to literacy and elements of numeracy at the same time.

From language development to learning to read

At Little Scholars, we have a specific approach to learning to read. It’s called the 3a Abecedarian Approach Australia to reading. This is where children are active in conversational reading.

A long 1970s study in the US was the basis for the now well-adapted approach. The Abecedarian Project was a controlled scientific study of the potential benefits of early childhood education for disadvantaged children. Children born between 1972 and 1977 were randomly assigned as babies to either the early educational intervention group or the control group.

Children in the experimental group received full-time, high-quality educational intervention in an early learning setting from infancy through age

  • Educational activities consisted of “games” incorporated into the child’s day
  • Activities focused on social, emotional, and cognitive areas of development but gave particular emphasis to language
  • Children’s progress was monitored over time with follow-up studies conducted at ages 12, 15, 21, and 30
  • The young adult findings demonstrate that important, long-lasting benefits were associated with the early childhood program

At the age 30 follow-up study, the treated group was more likely to hold a bachelor degree, hold a job, and delay parenthood, among other positive differences from their peers.

How our reading approach works

The 3a Approach encourages the adult and child to go ‘back and forth’ in conversation. There are three main levels to try – the first level is seeing, then showing, then saying.

Make it a conversation by asking your child to do something and not always following the words in a book.

“Can you see an owl? “Can you say owl?” “Can you show me an owl?”

At Little Scholars, we start with comprehension when looking at books – the thinking and talking about and enjoying the books we read together either in a group or one-on-one. Once children have a connection to books and reading, that’s when we can start teaching the ‘word parts’ of being a reader.

This is also something parents can and should do at home. Working with families is a core part of the Abecedarian approach! Parents are their children’s first educators, so we believe it’s to support families to grow in confidence as their children’s first educator, and reading together daily supports successful young readers. If you’d like to learn more, talk to your children’s educators or your campus manager for more information.

Read more:

Do you have a little one who is eager to learn and likes technology? Apps can improve skills in fine motor skills, reading, phonics, maths, problem-solving and more. Research suggests that after age two, children may benefit from some types of screen time, such as programming with music, movement and stories. We’ve compiled a list of what we think are some of the best educational apps for children aged three to five years.

Daniel Tiger's Day & Night

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Pre-school aged children can learn about morning and bedtime routines with PBS KIDS’ Daniel Tiger. Help Daniel Tiger get ready for school in the morning and for bed at night through imaginative play and songs.

We like it because there are sing-along songs that make routines fun and a musical timer to keep routines such as teeth-brushing on track.

Pros: Simple, age-appropriate for toddlers.

Cons: There’s no order required for following the routines, and it’s limited to morning and evening routines only.

Available on the App store and Google Play

Hopster Coding Safari for Kids

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Pre-coding logic game for kids

Why? We think introducing children to coding early is gives children a head start in learning how to code with Hopster Coding Safari. This animal themed pre-coding logic game to help little ones learn the fundamentals of coding. Children are presented with a series of logic problems to solve, getting different animals to where they need to be.

Children learn: The fundamentals of computational thinking

  • Foundations of coding
  • Problem solving
  • Planning

This game will engage young children in computational thinking – the fundamental techniques needed to understand coding – without them realising they are learning!

Pros: Wide range of activities, links to early years learning objectives.

Cons: Paid subscription based and not a lot offered without paying.

Available on the App store

Busy Shapes

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Shape-sorting puzzles great for fine motor skill development

What makes Busy Shapes so clever is the way the puzzles gently gets more challenging, motivating little ones to find solutions to each puzzle through experimentation. From shape-changing to colour-mixing to hidden holes, we’re impressed with how the game spurs out-of-the-box thinking, stimulating curious young minds. The app’s designers say it’s inspired by the pioneering works of child theorist Jean Piaget (1896-1980), who believed that “children are little scientists” and that a child’s thoughts are built through experiences that encourage him or her to engage in the reasoning process.

Pros: Free version includes a lot of activities. The challenge increases, with multiple objects and holes of different shapes, moving objects, obstacles to get around or to move, and finally the need to use tools to move the objects. There’s no direction and no help. Children must explore and discover on their own how to get the objects into the holes.

Cons: Doesn’t seem to be a way to get to earlier levels.

Available on the App store and Google Play

Khan Academy Kids

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Khan Academy Kids is a free, fun, educational program with thousands of activities and books that will inspire a lifetime of learning and discovery for children ages two+.

The app is designed by experts in early childhood education to guide young learners on a delightful journey through key skills in maths, reading, phonics, writing, social-emotional development, and more. It includes thousands of lessons, activities, books, and games that are age-appropriate for preschool through year two. With catchy songs and yoga videos, little ones will also have fun moving, dancing, and getting the wiggles out.

Pros: The variety of learning topics and the creative approach to activities offer breadth and depth without it feeling overwhelming.

Cons: Animations could use more captioning; written instruction and language options.

Available on the App store and Google Play

ABC Animal Toddler Adventures

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This app aims to strengthen children’s cognitive skills, concentration and memory with activities such as tracing letters, spelling with an A-Z of animals, counting, jigsaw puzzles, spot the difference, pet salon, feed the animals and more. Your toddler will really enjoy playing this game as every little action has been thoughtfully designed for an effortless gameplay.

Pros: Fun cheerful characters, good for young learners working on fine motor skills, problem-solving skills, spelling, and language acquisition.

Cons: Limited activities and full screen ads in free version, some complaints about price of full version.

Available on the App Store

Zoolingo

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This app for toddlers has more than 1000+ fun and educational activities and games! This delightfully interactive smart app helps children learn ABCs, numbers, colours, shapes, and more. Children can skip, sing, and dance to popular nursery rhymes with Moolingo the monkey.

Pros: The amount of activities.

Cons: Paid subscription service.

Available on the App Store and Google Play

Homer

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Thoughtfully-made educational games for children aged two to eight, including early literacy skills using a comprehensive program full of interesting activities, building blocks for maths confidence, and tools for navigating social skills, empathy, and confidence.

Pros: Personalised to children’s interests across subjects, learning grows with child.

Cons: Paid subscription service.

Available on the App Store and Google Play

ABC Preschool Kids Tracing

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Features letters and word learning games to help children learn basic tracing of alphabet, letters, words and numbers one to 10.

Pros: Full app is free.

Cons: Some complaints on sound issues.

Available on the App Store and Google Play

Toca Boca

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The Toca Boca suite of apps for children is an interactive way to explore the world by cooking, cutting hair, building a neighborhood, and taking care of pets.  For the youngest users, try a role-playing app like Toca Doctor or a simple app like hairstyling (children love the hairdryer!). And as they grow, children can design and build their own city with the Toca Life apps.

Pros: Dozens of games to choose, including some free, and ome games can be purchased as a bundle for discounted pricing. Variety of games for beginners, animal lovers, budding engineers, and more.

Cons: Not all apps will be of interest to all.

Available on the App Store and Google Play

Related:

Our top 5 tips for safe screen time for small children

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Come and see the Little Scholars difference

Let us hold your hand and help looking for a child care centre. Leave your details with us and we’ll be in contact to arrange a time for a ‘Campus Tour’ and we will answer any questions you might have!

Come and see the Little Scholars difference

Let us hold your hand and help looking for a child care centre. Leave your details with us and we’ll be in contact to arrange a time for a ‘Campus Tour’ and we will answer any questions you might have!