Mixed-Age Classrooms Provide Optimal Learning Environment

By Peckie Peters, Head Teacher 

We mix our age groups: We have children from 2. until they’re 5 in the same group, so that children always have a chance to be the youngest and the oldest and the in-betweens. Little children have peer models that are much easier to imitate and learn from than adults are, and the older children look back and pace their growth and see how they learned. And they say things like ‘I couldn’t do that last year either, but now I can,’ or ‘I’ll help you,’ or ‘If you had a box that you stood on, you could reach it,’ and this kind of thing, so that awareness of growing and sympathy with growing is a part of it.... –Edith Dowley, 1971 

This year, Bing Nursery School celebrates its 50th anniversary. This tremendous milestone offers us a wonderful opportunity to reflect on our school, its underlying principles, current practices and future direction. Our founding director, Dr. Edith Dowley, envisioned a space where children were valued and respected and where they could freely explore in a play-based environment. Her commitment to creating a school where children’s needs are honored first and foremost is evident in all components of Bing, and her original tenets are still evident today. One significant component of her philosophy was that children should be in mixed-age groupings because they most closely duplicate what children might experience in their home environment. Alberta Siegel, the late Stanford professor of psychiatry and former chair of Bing’s director’s advisory committee, reminisced about Dowley’s impact on Bing and on the field of early childhood to the Bing staff in 1997. She noted Dowley’s conviction that the nursery school should be an extension of the family outward rather than of the elementary school downward. Dowley was certain, and research confirmed, that when children were segregated by age they missed out on the opportunities to learn from the experiences, knowledge and abilities of older peers. Her decision to create a mixed-age program, which was rooted in the research of 50 years ago, continues to be supported by research today and is alive and well in West AM. 

Consider the following example: Mila, age 4, is making a rocket ship using flat magnetic plastic shapes. She connects a triangle piece to one of the square pieces and begins her countdown, “Five, four, three, two, one, blastoff!” As she says “blastoff,” the triangle piece separates from the square piece, heading off on its own trajectory away from the square. She holds firmly to both pieces as the triangle momentarily “flies,” then returns and reconnects to the square. Anson, age 3, is watching as he builds a “dog,” using the same materials. He laughs to himself as he uses multiple pieces to create a very long structure. He glances at Mila, who is building again, then adds a triangle to one end of his long creation. Moments later the triangle separates from the other pieces, mimicking the movement made by Mila’s rocket ship. Anson explains, “The dog takes his head off (chuckles to himself) and pushes the button (another magnet lying on the table). The head blasts off and it knocks stuff over.” He proceeds to use the triangle piece to take apart the other pieces of the dog. 

In her research, Lilian Katz, professor emerita of early childhood education at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, found that younger children in mixed-age groupings demonstrated a capacity to participate in and extend more complex activities when initiated by an older peer than they could do if they were by themselves. Perhaps Anson’s decision to expand his description of what dogs can do was impacted by the model that Mila offered. As teachers, one such observation does not allow us to make that conclusion. However, after the first experience, Anson continued to build and to watch Mila as she worked. Much of his work that day reflected what he witnessed in her play. 

Another day, Phoebe, age 3, and Lea, age 4., are working together at the design table, where open-ended, recycled materials and tools are available. Phoebe notices Lea cutting out a heart shape using the technique of folding her paper in half, then cutting a slanted half-circle. “I can’t do that,” Phoebe announces, as she carefully watches Lea’s process. “It’s easy. Let me show you how. This is how you draw a real heart,” is Lea’s response. She gets a piece of paper, folds it in half and draws half of a heart outline. “I want you to follow the lines I drew and just cut there and you’ll get the shape you want,” she says as she hands it back to Phoebe. Phoebe takes the paper and tries to cut the heart, but the paper unfolds as she works and the end product looks more like an oval. Lea inspects it and points out to Phoebe, “You have to keep it folded and cut both pieces. Here, try again.” She draws another outline and this time Phoebe smiles as she unfolds her paper to discover a heart shape. 

So, you might ask, could a teacher just show a child how to build with magnatiles or cut a heart and have the same results? Perhaps. But again, research provides a framework for understanding the value of this type of exchange. First, as older children model more sophisticated approaches to problem-solving for their younger peers, it increases the older children’s level of independence and competence. Second, research conducted at Bing by Stanford scholars Allison Master and Gregory Walton showed that when children perceive that they belong to a social group (e.g., when they are told that they are part of a “Blue Group”), they are more motivated to persist on challenging tasks such as puzzles (Child Development, 2013). And third, older children view younger children as needing their help, whereas younger children perceive that older children can offer instruction and leadership. When these two forces combine in mixed-age classrooms, it creates an environment of cooperation, which is beneficial to all. 

Take, for example, this incident that occurred a few months ago. Mateusz, age 4, was trying to make a ticket for teacher Quan (pronounced “Waan”) so he could ride on the train Mateusz had constructed.

Mateusz: “Wuh. Wuh. What makes the sound ‘Wuh’?”

Teacher: “I think that might be a ‘W.’ I wonder who can help us figure it out?” 

At that moment, Sydney, age 5, comes into the classroom to begin her day, backpack in one hand, fruit in the other. 

Teacher: “Sydney, can you help Mateusz?”

Mateusz: “I need to make a ticket for Quan to ride on the train.” 

Sydney (smiling at Mateusz as she sets down her backpack and places her fruit in the basket): “Sure!” 

Her demeanor reflects a sense of competence and a desire to help. 

Mateusz explains: “Can you write ‘Quan’? Wuh. Wuh. Wuh.”

Sydney: “I think so. Can you tell me what it starts with?”

Mateusz: “Wuh. Wuh. What makes the sound ‘Wuh’?”

Sydney: “I think that might be a ‘W.’ I can make a ‘W.’” 

She proceeds to write one on his paper. 

Sydney saw an opportunity to help Mateusz and, in the process, solidified her letter-writing skills while also emulating for Mateusz that it feels nice when an older child offers support and nurturing. Though Quan’s name is actually spelled with a “Q,” he judged that this was not a good time to help both children learn this information, so he didn’t correct them. Prosocial behaviors like giving help or sharing are more frequent in mixed-age groups, as Penelle Chase and Jane Doan state in Full Circle: A New Look at Multiage Education (1994). Children need “opportunities to gain insight into the feelings of empathy and sympathy, altruism and compassion, generosity and kindness,” stated former head teacher Beverley Hartman in the 2004 Bing Times. The added benefit of these experiences is that as younger children become the older children in the group, they also emulate these behaviors, and the culture of the classroom continues to reflect this compassion. In fact, research confirms that mixed-age groupings enable children to appreciate how their own skills (such as writing or climbing or cutting) have developed, and also to acknowledge their own progress and to realize that others are developing as well. 

The following example seems to indicate that Ella has an awareness and appreciation for the fact that Ava is learning how to swing. Ava, who’s 3, is sharing her thinking as she holds tightly to the chains of the belt swing, extending her toes as she goes up in the air, and grinning on the way down. “When I was 2, I had a ‘pasi’ (pacifier). Then I was 3, then I’ll be 4, then 5, and then, I’ll touch the sky!” The teacher giving occasional pushes smiles and says, “You are noticing that you keep getting bigger.” Ava nods and says “Yes, but I’m still a little girl now.” On the swing next to her, Ella, who’s 4 ., pumps her legs back and forth. “I don’t need pushes anymore,” she announces. “Look, Ava! I’m as high as you!” The two girls smile at each other and continue to swing. 

Another day children enjoy the process of reflecting on their own growth, as they engage in an art project together. Kaelum, age 4, Lea, age 4 ., and Maia, age 4., decorate paper butterfly wings on the stage in the yard. Lea is using multiple decorations and needs lots of masking tape, so a teacher helps her by placing pieces on the edge of the table. Kaelum watches and says, “I get my own tape now” and tears off a piece. The other two look up and nod as if in acknowledgement to his pronouncement, then return to their work. Maia is drawing many hearts on her wings. “I practiced them [hearts] so now I can do them,” she announces, to which Lea responds, “They’re easy for me. I practiced since I was 3.” None of the three stopped their work or challenged the others’ reflections. Instead, they seemed to just share a mutual moment of acknowledging their growth. 

Sometimes, younger children even reflect on the skills demonstrated by older peers as in this scenario with Julian and Keira. Julian, age 3, uses a front-end loader to make a road in the sand area close to the monkey bars. Keira runs through the sand area, climbs the ladder up to the monkey bars and reaches for the second bar, bypassing the first one. She crosses the monkey bars swiftly, her movements seeming almost effortless, particularly when she jumps down quickly on the other side. Julian pauses to watch her. “Keira, how old are you?” Julian asks. “I’m 5” is her reply. “And is Marie 5, too? Can she also do the monkey bars like you?” Julian knows that Keira and Marie are very good friends and they spend most of their time at school together. “She’s 5, too, but I’m a little older. We both do monkey bars. I’ve been doing them since I was 3, no, maybe even 2” is Keira’s response. “That’s a lot of practice,” comments the teacher, and Julian nods and watches Keira run off to the swing. He resumes his work in the sand for several more minutes, then mounts the ladder to the monkey bars. He climbs to the top rung and jumps to the sand, smiling to himself when he lands on two feet. 

Clearly, positive examples of the value of mixed-age groupings are plentiful. Jay Siegel, professor Alberta Siegel’s son and a former Bing parent, recently shared with us his daughter’s experience at Bing: “We could also definitely see the benefits of Bing’s multi-age classes. Sydney has always interacted very well with younger children. Her first grade class was a combination kindergarten/first grade. Sydney really enjoyed the younger children in the class, and the teacher remarked how well she ‘worked’ with the kindergarteners and how much they looked up to her.” 

It is important to add that teachers play an important role in facilitating play, encouraging collaboration and reminding children to be mentors to others, rather than gloating over their higher-level skills when children are not yet able to do it for themselves. As identified by Dowley many years ago and reinforced by ongoing research, mixed-age groupings provide a rich and varied environment in which children can learn. Jennifer Winters, our current director, expresses it eloquently: “This plan [mixed-age grouping] is optimal for children’s social and emotional growth, as they learn to be both leaders and followers: They learn to compromise and collaborate; to plan and negotiate; to work in a group or by themselves. It is much like a family grouping in that there is a wide range of competencies” (The Bing Times 2014). To see this wonderful learning in action, come visit West AM or any of the other classrooms at Bing!