The Special Benefits of Mixed Age Play

by Meghan Fitzgerald

I start out with thanks to Max’s mom. She caught me off guard when she asked to enroll her 2-year-old in my very first “3 to 5-year-old” Tinkergarten class. I wondered how such a mixed age group would feel to kids and, even more so, to parents. Ultimately, I gave it a try, and, it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Years later, 80% or more of our outdoor learning groups span more than three years of age, thanks to that experience.

That season, I was amazed by how much Max was able to do. Although Max took longer than his older classmates to come out of his shell, the older kids watched out for him, and he responded to their attention and modeling. In little time, Max “joined the pack,” pretended quite readily, and took on remarkable challenges. What blew my mind even more, though, was how much the older children seemed to gain from both caring for Max and making him their genuine playmate.

None of this should be too surprising. If you have multiple kids or a large extended family, you regularly see and feel the beauty of younger and older playing and learning together. Find a way to watch To Be and To Have, a gorgeous film about a French one-room schoolhouse, and you’ll feel it in your bones. Humans were learning in mixed age groupings for centuries, and anthropologists like Melvin Konner remind us that same-aged learning groups are a construct of modern times. But, nearly all learning experiences in today’s world group kids in very narrow age ranges. 

I’ve continued to refine my thinking about the value of mixed age play with other researchers and practitioners, including conversations with the evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray. As Gray asserts, 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 that older, more experienced children can offer. Research goes even further to show that mixed-age play with older playmates supports enhanced cognitive, language, and motor development in two-year-olds.  

I understand why a parent would worry that a mixed age experience is too advanced for her wee one. Younger children often appear less engaged since they take a bit longer to adapt to a new classroom, shift focus often, and express their ideas in less sophisticated ways than their elders. Nevertheless, younger children take in so much information, and they learn from all that they observe. If we stop thinking of the older children as yardsticks against which to compare a younger child’s play, we can see older children as compelling teachers who can scaffold a younger child’s learning. When we allow young children to take their time, and look for evidence of learning both in and outside of class, we nearly always see young children making remarkable progress in mixed age settings.

Mixed-age play also benefits the older kids.  Playing with younger children offers older kids the chance to act as leaders, to play teacher, and to develop creativity, empathy, and kindness—soft skills that kids need as they make and maintain friendships, work and collaborate with others, and solve complicated problems. In contrast, same-age groupings tend to foster competitive dynamics. Research shows us that playing with younger children does not “dumb down” the play of older kids. When 5 and 2-year olds play together, the 5-year-olds continue to play in their 5-year-old way; they just lift the 2-year-olds up with them. 

It is understandable that encouraging older kids to engage in play with toddlers may not immediately appeal to parents of the older children. After all, it would seem that such play may not be as stimulating as play with same age peers. Additionally, we all live in a culture where we've been convinced that stretching our kids to achieve as much as they can, as early as they can, will net better results. But it's critical to give our children this chance to work in mixed aged groups. Kids learn to be leaders when they get the chance to be the most competent in the group, because they get the chance to confidently share, and teach, and empathize with the younger ones.

My earlier years of work in formalized school settings trained me to optimize for same age learning, something that certainly helps when your charge is teaching things like long division or when you are organizing young children for whole day care—those are learning challenges that demand smaller age ranges. My work in less formal, play-based, mixed age settings has helped me to unlearn this focus, though. I have seen real transformations too many times to count, both in younger children who rose to meet their elders and in leaders born of the older kids in a group. Kids rarely get those chances when tracked into a same age world. Giving our children opportunities to experience rich, mixed aged play is powerful, even essential for them in their early years, and may be one of the most valuable gifts we can give them for their years to come. 

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