What children learn in a multi-age classroom

A while back, I wrote about mixed-age play and the benefits of multi-age classrooms. Today, I’ll describe what the learning experience is like for different ages of children at my Family Inventors’ class. We enroll children ages 3 – 7. When I say that to many preschool teachers, they are startled, saying “that’s a really wide range of developmental abilities! How does that work out?” We think it works great!

Why do we teach mixed age?

We want to be able to welcome a whole family in to participate. We are a parent co-op, which means that parents work in the classroom once a month, and they typically “stay and play” with their child on the days they’re not working. We want it to be possible for parents to be able to attend the class with all of their children. About a third of our families have two children in the class. We’ve had a couple families where three kids fit in our age range!

But it’s also because we believe in the benefits of multi-age classrooms: the younger kids tend to learn faster and learn more when they can observe the older children’s learning process. The older kids learn empathy and responsibility by interacting with the younger ones, but they also learn the academic concepts better through the process of explaining their ideas to the younger kids.

Can the little ones follow all the ideas you cover?

We are a STEM-based program. Some of our themes this year are: Chemistry – Solutions; Biology – Habitats; Building Towers, Tunnels and Bridges; and a multi-week unit on Simple Machines. We talk about these ideas in circle time and read books about them, but we also have lots of hands-on exercises to help children explore and discover some of the foundations of science. We expect that our 5 – 7 year olds will understand everything we teach. And they do. They’re able to understand the ideas, apply them to the class exercises, and extrapolate from them to a deeper understanding. They remember the concepts we talked about in circle.

Our pre-K age kids (age 4 – 5) get some of the ideas. They definitely understand the hands-on exercises and experience “gravity” and can describe to you what it is that they’ve learned about how gravity affects something. They don’t necessarily make any leaps beyond what we cover in class, and they may or may not remember the concept behind the exercises a few months later. (But, if you ask them to repeat an activity they learned in class… like asking “If I roll a toy car down this steep ramp and another one down this not-so-steep ramp, which will go faster”, they will remember that hands-on learning.) They definitely grasp more concepts by watching the older kids’ “a-ha moments” than they would grasp if the class was just adults telling them stuff.

Our littlest ones, the young 3’s, may not get the scientific concepts at all. And we don’t expect them to. What they get is a great preschool class with water play, sensory play, play-dough, building with blocks, stories, songs, and outdoor time – things that build small motor-skills, large motor skills, musical skills, language, and social development. They get exposed to lots of opportunities to play with how the world works. They rub balloons on their hair to make their hair stand up. We play with things that float on water and things that sink. We play with balls that roll down tracks. Some day, later in life, when someone talks to them about static electricity or buoyancy, or when they want to build their own marble maze, they’ll have this foundational knowledge in their brain, ready to be built upon.

What about the social dynamics?

In general, our olders play very well with our youngers. They naturally mentor them and help them out with simple tasks, like writing their names or tearing off a piece of tape. The children who are older siblings do especially well at this. But, for those who don’t have a younger sibling at home, it’s a great chance to practice interacting with someone who is younger and less knowledgeable than they are.

Our younger kids love having the big kids to follow around. They learn from them, play with them, imitate them. They may turn to an older child for help with things instead of always turning to adults for help, and learn more in the process.

For us as the teachers having this wide age range is definitely a challenge for curriculum planning. For each activity, we think about how each age of child can learn from it. For example, a simple activity might be setting out plastic bugs and containers on a table. The littlest children just play with the bugs and move them around and in and out of containers however they want (practicing small motor skills). The middle-ages may be encouraged to count them OR to taught the difference between beetles and spiders and flying bugs and asked to sort them. The oldest kids are asked to figure out what the three types of bugs are, then sort them into categories and then count how many of each category there are.

If we’re building pompom launchers with plastic spoons, rubber bands and craft sticks, we show the young ones how to build one (and help them as needed) then encourage them to play with them. For the older children, we let them figure out how to build one by looking at the prototype. We have them test it, then set a goal for themselves – do they want it to launch multiple pompoms? Or launch further? Or with more accuracy? We encourage them to tinker and adapt their designs using other available materials to achieve their goals.

We can’t assume that any of our students know how to read, but many of them do. And parents are always around to read for them if needed. So, we do put out signs at each activity that explain how it connects to the concepts of the day. And some weeks, like our “What is a Scientist” week, we put out worksheets that encourage children to do an experiment and record their results (like how many times a flipped coin lands heads-up or how many drops of water can they put on a penny). We’re hopeful that our oldest kids get some math and writing practice at those stations, but we figure our youngest kids get to learn how to flip a coin and notice that it has two different sides, and get to learn the fine motor skill of using an eye dropper and the hand-eye coordination of trying to get the drops to land on a penny. There is learning at every level.

When providing all this individualized learning, it helps a lot that we have a lot of adults in the room. In addition to our teachers, as a co-op, we also have some parents working in the classroom each week, and because we’re a Saturday class, the majority of parents actually stay-and-play each week. So, there’s always a grown-up around to help, but we also encourage the parents to sit back and let their children explore independently and support each other’s learning whenever possible.

The most exciting part is when kids come back year after year – we’ve had children join us for three or four years in a row. We see them go from the three year old who is splashing in the water table and finger painting to the 6 year old who is exploring our challenge projects, and stretching their learning to new levels of understanding. Although they may be doing the same activity they did the previous year, their level of skill mastery and understanding has stepped up a huge notch.

16 thoughts on “What children learn in a multi-age classroom

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