In Support of Mixed-age Groupings: An Optimal Model for Early Childhood Classrooms

Two children observing chrysalides at the language table.

By Parul Chandra, Head Teacher 

Interacting with peers of different ages has historically been part of the natural order of childhood. You may have grown up in the city where you and other children played in backyards or streets only going home when the streetlights flickered on. Maybe your childhood was in a rural environment, where you and your friends built forts in the forest and caught tadpoles in the creek. Or perhaps you had a very close family, where you and your siblings spent hours creating pretend worlds and playing games. While childhood experiences vary greatly, there is one thing that many children have in common—interacting regularly with a group of children who are both younger and older. Classrooms with young children of various ages mimic these family structures and neighborhood groupings, providing all with the opportunity to observe, emulate and initiate a wide range of competencies. The wider the age range, the greater the opportunity for children to experience empathy, develop friendships, and spend time with children with differing developmental skills.

Children experience the advantages of mixed-age groupings at Bing, where mixed-age classrooms are a tradition. Bing’s founding director Edith Dowley, a proponent of progressive education, emphasized in a seminar in 1971 that children’s learning and development are enriched and enhanced by mixed-age cohorts, commenting: “We mix our age groups, so that children always have a chance to be the youngest, 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.’” Bing teachers still follow and share this point of view and our nursery classrooms for 3- to 5-year-olds are a testament to Dowley’s vision.

Two children writing together outside.

Many educators and psychologists have studied the multiple benefits of mixed-age classrooms. Maria Montessori, who opened her first school for 3- to 5-year-olds in 1907 for children who played on the streets of Rome, was a strong proponent of multi-age groups. She noticed that children became aware of their multi-age peers and became almost as deeply invested as teachers were in the progress of their peers’ work. Montessori defined what classrooms should look like: “The main thing is that the groups should contain different ages because it has great influence on the cultural development of the child. This is obtained by the relations of the children among themselves.” According to Montessori, “There are many things which no teacher can convey to a child of 3, but a child of 5 can do it with ease.” Montessori emphasized that the multi-age classroom gives children the chance to learn from each other. 

Enhancement of social development is another advantage of mixed-age classrooms noted by early childhood educators. Lillian Katz, professor emerita of early childhood education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and her colleagues wrote about this in The Case for Mixed-Age Grouping for Early Education, noting that in mixed-age groups, older children are perceived as contributing and younger children as needing their contributions. Additionally, Katz postulated that “If learning tasks involve children working together instead of individually or competitively, fruitful collaboration between ‘novices’ and ‘experts’ can occur.”

These classrooms additionally help stimulate the children’s cognitive development. This time to collaborate, observe, teach and dialogue drives the learning, where children are challenged, excited and willing to take risks. Younger children watch older children perform a variety of complex tasks and try those out for themselves, inviting support from their older peers. French essayist Joseph Joubert’s words—“To teach is to learn twice”—is a testament to our children’s unquenchable thirst to share their skills and strategies with others who want to receive, and in turn reinforce, the learning for themselves. 

Many more advantages of multi-age classrooms exist. Among them:

• Focus on discovery and curiosity instead of competition as children are exposed to a variety of interests, talents and personalities of their peers. 

• Acquisition of flexibility and resilience as children perceive the differences in their developmental levels and competencies and adjust their expectations of one another. Over time, these relationships are opportunities for ingraining empathy, patience, perspective-taking and partnership.

• Development of an attitude that progress, skills and traits are not inborn but come from learning. As children work with a diverse group of peers, they start to understand that neither ability nor skills are fixed, but they can be learned and developed over time. “This view creates a love for learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment,” said Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford in an interview.

• Older children’s recognition of their own increasing competencies as they take on the expert role with their younger peers. This mentorship role helps older children develop self-confidence and leadership skills. They collaborate with younger children, encouraged by the energy, enthusiasm and wonder exhibited by their younger friends. An example of this happened during a child’s conversation with a teacher. An older child demonstrated to a younger child how to pump on the swing by alternately extending and bending his legs. The older child said to the teacher, “I couldn’t pump on the swing before. You had to give me pushes. Now I just need a starter push.” Here, the older child noticed his own growth and increasing competencies as he modeled for his younger friend.

Three children building a tower with unit blocks.

Below are some of the comments older children made to support younger children as they all played together in Center AM this school year.

“That’s pretty good, R. Keep going.” (Encouraging a friend as he tries to paint the letters on his work.)

“First you fold it and then you go over and under and staple. Want to try?” (Helping a friend make a costume for a story play.)

“Push, push, push then tuck, tuck your legs and that is how you go high on the swing.” (Modeling how to pump on a swing.)

“Watch me put this block on the tower… oohh … carefully. Now move back so you don’t knock it over.” (Instructing a peer on how to build a stable structure.)

“Follow me. Let me show you how I found it like last time.” (Providing support to peers during a scavenger hunt activity.)

“Next time you can say ‘I want the truck.’” (Modeling social problem-solving in the sand area when two children wanted the same truck.)

“Hey, I ‘learnt’ her how to write a G!” (Showing a friend how to write the letter in her name.)

“Slow, first you go up, then swing your leg. No, just your leg. Hold on to the bar and then like this.” (Modeling climbing the A-frame.)

By relating to their peers, children synergistically get each other’s neurons firing away. Recently, a child created a calendar that had more than 100 days on it. He wanted to represent a way to keep track of how long our classroom caterpillars would take to hatch. He built upon his calendar daily, working diligently to add more numbers. When other children observed his self-initiated project, he got their attention. Soon we noticed that he was surrounded by a small group of multi-age children with clipboards and pencils creating their own versions of calendars! They were excited to follow his lead and to learn more about numbers and calendars. 

As the older children model appropriate behavior and offer leadership and support to younger and less knowledgeable children, they also strengthen their own skills. Younger children benefit from the opportunity to look up to older children as role models. This school year, for instance, we observed children develop a love for language, music and an interest in numbers simply by observing and interacting with other children in their class. These moments are special, and teachers at Bing recognize the importance of these opportunities for peer tutoring.