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  • Writer's pictureAmy Plant

Mixed-Age Classes: A Whistle Stop Tour of the Magic.

Updated: Apr 19

When we separate children by age, in schools and in other settings, we deprive them… We rob them of the opportunity to use fully their natural and joyful ways of learning from one another. 

Peter Gray, Mother Nature’s Pedagogy 2020

One of the most heart-warming events in my work, is when I witness children grow into confident, outspoken, compassionate and questioning leaders. Becoming the older children in the mix, creates a dynamic shift that supports this growth beautifully.

On a typical morning I might observe 7 year old Patrick demonstrate to 3 year old John, how to use the “dragon sneeze” fire striker, while 6 year old Martha holds 3 year old Lisa’s hand, and 8 year old Elizabeth helps 5 year old Marcus remember our fire circle safety agreements. When I see these interactions I feel content that we have achieved the most natural and optimum environment: a Learning Community.

Isn't it for an extremely short time in human history, that we have segregated children according to age? Why do we do this now? Is it really best for the children? 

I invite you to briefly visit five magical benefits of learning in a multi-age community:

1: Teaching Others, Reinforces Our Own Learning

When I asked 7 year old Stacie what it’s like to be one of the eldest at school, she said: “The feeling is good. You get to help the younger kids learn.”

Given the opportunity to pass on knowledge to another is an intellectual challenge. How do we communicate and demonstrate what we know? What is missing from our knowledge, when we start to teach it to another? Learning and teaching go hand in hand, and each is most effective when we are doing both. 

Moreover, teaching a younger community member instills a sense of confidence in the teacher, and as Stacie so clearly experienced, that feels good.

2: We Can Learn at Our Own Pace

Lets take the pressure off and allow our children the space to learn things when they are ready to. In a mixed-age cohort, children are naturally exposed to a wide range of ability in all areas including: social and emotional skills, sophistication in play, fine and gross motor development, language, academic ability and hands-on skills.  

In Peter Gray’s words: “Age mixing is sometimes a means of matching abilities”.

I have noticed, for instance, that 3 year old learners with very capable language skills will delight in chatting and playing with an older child. And an 8 year old might be lacking in the physical confidence to climb trees, but won't feel pressured or left behind, as they go at the pace of the younger children. Refreshingly, there is less focus on comparison and competition within a group of mixed ages and abilities.

3: We Pass on Unique Traditions and Rituals, Creating Our Own Culture

“Who started the tradition of making energy balls for the cafe?” asked 7 year old Colin one day. 

When children stay in the same class for a number of years, they pass down and repeat ideas for activities and rituals they have developed to the younger learners. This helps to create a culture that is more child-led than adult-led. The children gain ownership of their school. They are respectful and confident because of it.

4: We Can be more Open to Guidance from Each Other

When 10 year old Elsie, attended Little House in the Forest, she started to echo the guidance given to the younger children by the adults. The younger children, who all looked up to Elsie and thought she was the bees knees, would stop in their tracks and pay full attention to her advise. 

As the older children are closer in age than the adults, they are often naturally able to meet the younger children’s Zone of Proximal Development, which is a fancy way of saying that they can offer just enough challenge for furthering a skill, but not too much that it’s frustrating and puts them off.

5: We Can Inspire Each Other to be more Creative

A lovely game I witnessed once, involved a couple of 4 year olds playing “squirrel family”. The 6 and 7 year olds joined in by hiding nuts for the ‘squirrels’ to find. 

During our summer school last year, the younger children were enjoying making and playing instruments, which inspired the older learners to stage a musical performance. 

These are just a few ways that the creative play of 3, 4 and 5 year olds, can be infectious to older children, who feel a sense of freedom to create their own visions and fantasies.

When I reflect on my own childhood, and growing up with four siblings in a 14 year age range, I feel blessed. The exposure I had to my older brother’s social circle, had me looking forward, and I loved joining their “philosophical conversations”. My younger brothers and baby sister, naturally and unknowingly, presented me with beautiful lessons in nurturing. In the traditional village, multi age mixing has always been the norm. Perhaps we would do well to give this strange notion that children need only to learn alongside others of the same age, a serious rethinking.

The names of the learners mentioned in this post have been changed

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