The benefits of mixed-age play in early learning
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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