Mixed Age Play

A 16 year old buried under a puppy pile of 7 year old, 3 year old, and 2 year old buddies...

A patient and tolerant 16 year old buried under a puppy pile of 12 year old, 7 year old, 3 year old, and 2 year old buddies…

I’m working now on a longer post about the benefits of multi-age classrooms. (To be posted September 2) but I wanted to share some observations from my recent personal experiences with multi-age play.

Modern American kids tend to spend much of their time in age segregated activities: schools, sports teams, and extra-curriculars where all the kids were born within a one year age span. During the school year, much of what my child does is with his own age cohort.

But this summer, my three-year-old has had lots of opportunities for mixed age play:

  • Lots of spontaneous play on public playgrounds with whatever strangers happen to be there… he tends to play most with kids age 2 – 6.
  • Monthly social for a club we’re involved in. We gather in a gym, and there tend to be about 5 kids…. last month they were 3, 5, 7, 9, and 12 years old. My son has played with each of them a few times before.
  • Play time on the playground at church. There’s usually about a dozen kids, ranging in age from 3 – 12. We’ve known them for six months.
  • “Dinner in the park with friends” – we gather with two other families once a week in the park. Our 7 kids are 20, 17, 16, 12, 7, 3, and 2 years old. And they’ve all known each other since birth.

As I watched him play in each of these settings, here’s what I observed (and also what is described by authors and researchers in this area.)

What do I love about mixed age play?

Benefits for younger kids:

  • They get exposed to new ways of thinking. My son doesn’t yet do a lot of imaginary play on his own, but when playing with older kids, suddenly, he’s talking about how they’re pirates on a pirate ship. Or he’s serving up “ice cream cones” made of bark.
  • They learn new ways of moving. My son has learned how to use all the playground equipment – even the challenging stuff – by watching the older kids do it. He learned how to do somersaults recently.
  • They learn new skills. My second child (like many younger siblings) learned to read, write, tie her shoes, dress herself, and more by watching her big sibling do it. I’ve heard countless stories of kids potty training after attending a camp or class where older kids routinely use the potty.

Benefits for older kids:

  • They learn to be flexible. At the social we attend, I watched the kids play an improvised ball game with invented rules. The older kids had teams, and were always trying to move the ball toward their team’s goal. But they understood that the younger ones couldn’t remember or follow the rules reliably. So, the littlest kids could kick the ball any direction they wanted to, and the older ones just worked with the chaos of that.
  • They learn to explain and enforce rules. But the older kids also did set limits sometimes on what was allowed and what wasn’t allowed. They had to figure out how to explain it so the little kids could understand.
  • They learn empathy, to be gentle and watch out for little ones. At church, I watched kids on the swings figure out that if big kids are walking near them, it’s OK because they know to be careful, but if little kids start to wander near, they call out a warning and they slow down their swings.

Benefits for parents:

  • Can give parents a break: If there are responsible (or semi-responsible) older kids around, the parents of the little ones may be able to sit back a little. For example, when we’re with our friends in the park, often the teens and tween supervise the 3 little ones while the parents relax and talk.

What can be challenging about mixed age play?

  • Kids get exposed to new ways of thinking: Sometimes things they might not have otherwise thought of…. In the movie Boyhood, there’s a scene where the 6-year-old and the older neighbor boy are flipping through a lingerie catalog ogling the models in their lacy bras. The 6-year-old probably would not have pursued “girly magazines” as young without that influence.
  • They learn new ways of moving: I still remember when my oldest was 6 or so, a girl who was probably 12 years old was shimmying up the pole of the swing-set till she was 15 feet in the air. My daughter watched her very intently, then pulled off her socks and shoes and scaled the pole. Something that would have never occurred to her to do on her own. And that was much higher in the air than I wanted her to be!
  • They learn new skills. I learned how to work pocket knives, matches, and other cool tools from my older brothers. Probably much younger than my parents might have wished I learned those skills.
  • Big kids aren’t always nice. We’ve had two incidents with my little guy this summer. One was at a playground where there was a group of 4 girls who were probably 9 or 10 years old. When we arrived, they played happily with my son and were having a great time. Then they decided they were bored of the “baby” and wanted him to go away. He had a hard time understanding what had changed. Another was at a different playground where there was a large group of older boys (age 7 or 8 maybe). My son was following them around, and laughing and engaged with them, but when we moved close we discovered that what was happening was they were asking him to say things like “I’m really stupid” and then laughing at him when he did. He didn’t get that it was mean – he thought it was a fun game. But clearly it was bullying and not appropriate behavior for those kids. (Their camp counselor was not providing sufficient supervision to even notice, much less intervene in the situation.)
  • Parents of older kids don’t always pay attention. When my child is the youngest one, he may be getting into situations that are more dangerous than he might typically be in (see above under “learn new ways of moving”). So, I have to supervise more closely than I normally would. But the parents of the older kids may be used to not having to do much supervision at all of their child, and may not realize that a) their child might need guidance on what is and is not appropriate play when younger kids are involved, and b) the parent who is supervising the youngest one then kind of gets stuck supervising all the kids by herself and managing all the needed interventions.
  • Unfair Expectations: In mixed age settings, it can be easy for adults to expect the younger children to have the same capabilities as the older children. When my younger daughter was 8, she was placed in a class where most of the kids were 10 years old. Academically, it was a good fit. She was one of the most advanced in the class. Socially, she did fine. She had a big sister, so she was used to playing with older kids. But emotionally it was hard. If something upset her, she had a hard time calming herself down. Parents who volunteered in the class sometimes had a hard time managing it, because they were used to their older children. Even the teacher failed to manage it well – reporting to us that our child was just much less emotionally mature than the other kids in the class. It was as if she’d forgotten that all those other kids had 25% more life experience than our daughter.

I think it’s important to be aware of these possible pitfalls, but don’t let it deter you from multi-age play.

I grew up as the youngest of four kids, with piles of kids of all ages in the neighborhood, at church, in 4-H, Girl Scouts, etc. I want my kids to have that experience of all the benefits  that mixed age play can give. And for that, I’m willing to take the challenges – think of them as learning experiences…

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