Tag Archives: montessori

Benefits of Multi-Age Classrooms

multi-ageAs fall rolls around, you may be looking for a preschool, or scheduling other activities for your little ones. One thing you may encounter is preschools with a “multi-age” classroom, or activities with a wide range of ages: where some programs are limited to children born within a few months of each other (age 2 – 2.5), others are open to children from toddler to kindergarten (age 2 – 5).

The advantages to close age groupings is that all activities can be tailored to the exact developmental capabilities of that age group. My kids have had lots of great experiences in these types of programs.

But, I also like to be sure my kids have exposure both to formal / facilitated programs that are multi-age and to opportunities for free play with kids of wide ranging ages. I think there’s a lot to be learned in these experiences.

A Historical / Evolutionary Perspective

Historically, children were more likely to be from large families, sharing a home with siblings of a wide range of ages. In the U.S. today, we tend to have much smaller families. Amongst women born in 1935 (parenting from approximately 1955 – 1985), 37% raised four or more children. Of women born in 1960, only 11% had four or more children. In 2010, only 9% of households had three or more children. (20% of kids are only children.) So, children used to have a multi-age experience in their own home, and are much less likely to have that now.

Also, through much of human history, we have lived in small tribes or, later, small towns. With a small community, there are only so many children, so it’s likely that those children represent a wide age range. Think of rural “one room school houses” that might serve 15 children ranging in age from 5 to 18. So, in the community, formal education and informal play was almost always ‘multi-age.’ Now we put thirty 5-year-olds in one room for kindergarten. Or, in recent years in the Seattle area, we had one “freshman campus” school that was for 9th graders only – putting approximately 1000 kids of the same age into one building. In The Benefits of Mixed Age Grouping (1995), Katz wrote “Although humans are not usually born in litters, we seem to insist that they be educated in them.”

So, historically, most kids have interacted with kids of all ages. Currently, many kids spend most of their time with their age cohort. Is anything lost by doing that? Here’s an examination of some of the benefits of multi-age education and play.

What is a multi-age classroom?

A class where students range in age, with an age span of 2 or more years. Typically, children stay in the classroom for a few years. For example, in a multi-age preschool serving ages 3 – 5, children typically enter at 3 and are the younger ones that year, then stay on for a second year as the older ones. In their second year, they may attend more days a week than they did as a 3 year old.

The goal of a multi-age classroom is heterogeneity. You want a wide range in experience, knowledge, skills, and interests. The teacher uses a variety of techniques, including individual work, small groups, and large group exercises to ensure that each individual child is receiving an education that is stimulating and effective while not being overwhelming.

Note: in this post, I am not referring to an accidental multi-grade classroom, where due to budgetary constraints, space limitations, or a limited student population, multiple ages of kids have been thrown together in a classroom with a teacher who may or may not be prepared to handle this. I’m talking about intentional multi-age programs where the curriculum is set up to maximize the strengths of the diverse grouping.

Benefits of Multi-Age Classrooms

  • If you have two children of different ages, they can be in the same class together, which might be reassuring to them and is definitely easier for your daily logistics.
  • Knowledge-Building and Skill Development: Younger children learn from older children. Older children reinforce and deepen their own understanding of a topic or skill by teaching it to the younger kids. This knowledge is passed on in a variety of ways:
    • Unintended modelling – when an older child is just doing something they want or need to do, not attempting to teach (like using the potty or drawing a picture of a dog). The older child may not even be aware the younger child is observing and absorbing. “Nothing is more interesting to a child than another child who has the skills that he or she wants to acquire” (Merrick, cited in Panko)
    • Social play: The younger ones are exposed to things like better emotional regulation and more sophisticated problem-solving which helps them learn these skills earlier.
    • Casual mentoring. When an older child wants the younger one to participate in a game or activity, she will just quickly explain it to the younger one so they can have fun together. When the older one is slowed down by the younger one’s lack of knowledge, sometimes they move in to help rather than waiting for the teacher to help. (Like putting on boots so they can go outside for recess.) Also, younger children learn which classmates they can go to for help with various tasks, and may seek out their help before asking a teacher. (At one lunch, kids were given fortune cookies. All the non-readers went straight to the kids who could read to ask for a quick answer to ‘what does this say?’)
    • Intentional teaching. Sometimes teachers will ask a child who has mastered a skill to teach it to a child who hasn’t yet mastered it. (Sometimes this is an older child teaching a younger child, but it can also be the other way around, as children gain skills at diverse ages.) The learner benefits by gaining information in a way that may be more fun and more confidence-building than learning from an adult. The child who is teaching has the chance to review his own knowledge from a new perspective, and practice mastering skills.
    • If older kids give incorrect information, the teacher can correct it, and both kids benefit – the teacher has discovered the older child’s misconception, which she otherwise might not have known about and makes sure both kids know the correct info. (This can remind the younger child that we’re all learners, and we can all make mistakes.)
  • Individualized curriculum, tailored to children’s unique skills, not just their age
    • A good multi-age program is child centered. Projects and assignments are tailored to the needs and interests of the children as individuals.
    • Children are more able to learn at their own pace, making continuous progress rather than having to “wait till second grade, when we cover that.”
  • Children stay with the same teacher for multiple years.
    • The teacher gets to know the child’s strengths and weaknesses, and is better able to tailor the lesson plan to meet that child’s unique needs.
    • There is a stronger parent-teacher relationship.
    • For the child, there’s the benefit of consistency, and a sense of safety and security in the classroom which enables better learning. (Assuming the teacher and child are a good match – if not, then your child could be stuck in a non-ideal situation for a while.)
    • Benefits in year-to-year transition: youngers have less anxiety about moving up, because they can see what comes next. Olders gain confidence as they can see how far they’ve come. Big kids feel like “grown ups.”
  • Less competition / labeling.
    • In a single age classroom, it’s easy to compare kids and say that some are gifted, some are delayed. In a mixed age classroom, it may be clearer that there’s a range of development: the one who does best in math class may have the hardest time in music class, regardless of age.
    • A child who struggles more with social skills might be ostracized by their age peers, but might find companionship in the younger kids in the classroom.
  • Better for a variety of kids:
    • Better for those August / September birthdays. In single grade groupings, parents end up deciding at age 5 whether their child will always be the youngest or the oldest in a classroom. In a multi-age program they have the opportunity to be in the younger half one year, and the older the next.
    • Better for gifted children. They can be pushed to achieve their potential with an individualized curriculum.
    • Better for children with learning challenges. Challenged students may have more self-esteem because don’t always feel like “the dumb one” in the class.
  • A more cooperative, caring learning environment.
    • Older kids learn to be patient, nurturing, responsible. (With guidance from the adults!)
    • Role-modelling. The older children learn how to set a good example.
    • Less misbehavior: Students are less likely to misbehave in multiage groups than in single-age classrooms (Logue, 2006 as cited in Song, et al 2009) “When the teacher asked the older children who were not observing the class rules to remind the younger ones what the rules were, the older children’s own “self-regulatory behavior” improved.” (Katz)
  • Prepares children for work in the “real world” where co-workers are varying ages and experience levels.
  • Research consistently shows that on standardized testing, children from multi-age classrooms perform as well or better than their peers in single-grade classrooms.

Questions to Ask:

Why is the class multi-aged? If it’s for philosophical reasons – because the school believes in the benefits of multi-aged classrooms–that’s a good sign. If it’s for budgetary reasons, or limited student population, or limited classroom space – that’s not a good sign.

Has the teacher taught a multi-age class before? That’s best. Or, has the teacher at least worked in the past with children of all the ages she will have in the classroom? Or at least received training in how to do it?

How does the teacher adjust the curriculum to meet all students’ needs? You’re hoping to hear that each child’s learning is individualized… one child might be in the ‘advanced math’ group and the ‘still working on reading skills’ group. If the teacher teaches the kids as two separate grades, taking turns between the ‘third graders’ and the ‘fourth graders’, that’s not good…

Does the teacher want to be there? The majority of teachers are opposed to multi-age classrooms, often because they doubt their ability to juggle the needs of the diverse learners in their classroom. But some teachers love this environment, and are passionate about the benefits of multi-age.

Is the whole school multi-age, or just a few classrooms? It tends to work best if multi-age is the assumption at the school, and all the programs are set up to work with that plan.

How do they assign kids? It does not work well to place low-performing older students with high-performing younger students. This tends to lead to labeling of the ‘dumb kids’ and the ‘smart kids’ and the self-esteem and social stigma that come with those labels. It’s better when there’s a wide range of achievement and skills in all the kids, so diversity is valued.

What else to consider:

Even more than in a single-grade classroom, the success of a multi-aged class depends upon the skills of the teacher.

Teachers need to be well-organized, knowledgeable, and flexible. They need to do frequent and holistic assessments of learning to make sure all the students are well-served, challenged, but not overwhelmed. Teachers need to have appropriate expectations for the youngers, not asking more than they are capable of. They also need appropriate expectations of the olders, giving them challenges that help to build their skills.

As the parent, you may be more closely involved than you would be in a single-grade classroom, just because many schools that believe in multi-age also believe in parent involvement and will ask more of you. You will also appreciate closer involvement. If you have a younger child, it’s exciting to see where they’ll be in a year. If you have an older child, it’s exciting to see how far they’ve come!


Multi-Age Education: http://arobi77.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/the-multiage-concept-explained.pdf. Collects several articles, originally published 2006 – 2011. Includes:

  • The Multiage Classroom, by Marion Leier.
  • A Multi-Aged Approach. Marion Leier.
  • My Thesis. Michelle Panko.
  • Benefits of Mixed Age Grouping. Lillian Katz. 1995
  • Interview with Tim Laner, 1998

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Multiage Classrooms in the Era of NCLB Accountability. CEEP Education Policy Brief. Song, Spradlin, and Plucker. Volume 7, Number 1, Winter 2009. http://ceep.indiana.edu/projects/PDF/PB_V7N1_Winter_2009_EPB.pdf

photo credit: theirhistory via photopin cc

Choosing a Preschool – Questions to Ask

After you’ve thought about your goals for a preschool and made a list of local options, you can learn more about those options by looking at their websites, going to open houses and visiting. Here are some things you’ll want to think about as you do that:

What do they teach?

  • They should work on all the “essential skills” areas listed here. If they don’t, you may need to think about how you’ll work on that skill at home or elsewhere.
  • You should see materials and planned activities that help children build: large motor skills (playground, balls, dance), small motor skills (puzzles, craft supplies), critical thinking skills (sorting games, pattern making), life skills (putting on their shoes, hanging a coat in a cubby), social skills (unstructured playtime with others), music, art, literacy (books, story time), math skills, and pretend play (dress-up corner, dolls, kitchen). This reveals a well-rounded attention to the development of the whole child.
  • Some schools also have a specialty focus: nature-based, language immersion, arts, academic, religion. These can be excellent, but may not cover all the essential skill areas. Again, you might think about how to supplement them. For example, if your child attended a very structured academic program each morning, you’d plan time for unstructured self-guided play, and free play with other kids in the afternoon. You might also choose two preschools… my oldest child went to a theatre preschool two days a week which was very focused on storytelling, acting, and singing, and was structured so that they could produce a mini-play at the end of each month. Another two days of the week, she went to a broadly-focused play based cooperative preschool.
  • What is the daily schedule – how is time divided between the subjects taught? Play time? Quiet time? Outdoors? Snack? Children this age have short attention spans for structured activity, so it’s best in short doses, and they need plenty of unstructured time in between to explore and discover. (Note: If children are at a preschool/child care all day, they should have a naptime/quiet time on the schedule. Quiet time for rest helps us to absorb what we learned during class time.)

How do they teach it?

When you start looking at preschools, you discover a whole world of jargon you never knew: play-based, emergent, teacher led, benchmarks, coop, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, and so on. It can be overwhelming. And to make it more confusing, different people use words differently.. two schools that both call themselves “child-led” or “play-based” may look very different in practice.

A couple big picture ideas:

Structured vs. Play-Based: A structured preschool might use group time, worksheets, and individual projects to teach particular skills. Students may be drilled in the basics, or asked to practice things over and over. (Think of your elementary school education – these are similar methods moved down to a younger group).”Circle time” or group story time that is facilitated by a teacher is another part of structured preschool.

A play-based preschool typically has multiple stations set up and allows children to move between things when they choose, spending as long as they want at an activity. The teacher moves around the room, making suggestions and observations to further the learning. (Here is a research summary about play-based learning: www.easternct.edu/cece/documents/TheCaseforPlayinPreschool.pdf) Most play-based preschools include circle time to provide some balance between structure and free play.

Teacher-Led vs. Child-Led: A teacher-led curriculum (may also be called didactic or standards-based) means the teacher always prepares the lessons in advance (it might be their own creation or they may use a curriculum written by someone else) and sticks to it.

A child-led curriculum (may also be called emergent or constructivist) follows the children’s interests. So, for example, the teacher may know the math concept of the week is more than/less than. But instead of teaching that in a formal scheduled way, she talks about it in circle, then she follows the children around – asking the children playing with trains whether there are more blue trains or red trains, then asking the children playing with blocks which tower has more blocks in it, and so on. A good child-led preschool is not just a free-play, no guidance, free-for-all. Instead, although the children may view it as just playtime, the teacher is making very conscious efforts to expand their knowledge and skills as they play. This article, though written for teachers, does a nice job of describing the process a teacher may go through in developing a play-based “lesson” for this type of classroom.  www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=453

Brand Name Teaching Methods

Here is my summary of the methods. You can find many more descriptions online, including helpful comparisons at www.pbs.org/parents/education/ going-to-school/choosing/comparing-preschool-philosophies-montessori-waldorf-and-more/ and www.privateschoolreview.com/articles/180. But remember that the actual practice of a school may differ from the theory of “the brand”.

  • Classic Montessori: The teacher sets up learning centers around the room, with “self-correcting” materials (e.g. a puzzle where the child can tell if they’ve done it right or wrong and thus can work to fix it themselves if it’s wrong.) Children work independently at their own pace, and are in a multi-age classroom.
    Important note: The word Montessori is not tightly controlled, and anyone can use it, no matter what teaching methods they use. Some schools use it because it’s a known brand name that “sells” well, but the classroom experience may only have a very loose connection to Montessori practices.
  • Rudolf Steiner/ Waldorf – Nurturing, predictable structure and routines. Natural materials, with time outdoors, baking bread, working with wool, wood, and wax materials, no plastic. Lots of imagination and oral story-telling, but no electronic media (families are discouraged from having any screen time at home). Reading is not taught until age 7. Learn more www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoW0pCIG-FM and www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZmAX5adCl0
    Note: Waldorf requires all teachers and schools to be certified, so there’s much more consistency between schools with the Waldorf name.
  • Reggio Emilia. Child-led investigations. Project-based: when the children come up with an idea for a project, the class focuses for a few weeks on it, finding out together what they need to know to make it happen (including pre-reading and math.) They document projects with photos and journals. www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVv5ZL9nlgs
  • Nature-based or “forest kindergartens“. Common in northern Europe, they are newer to the States. There are at least 5 available on the Eastside of Seattle (My son attends Tiny Treks). Children spend most, or all of their time outdoors (yes, even in the winter). Child-led, play-based, emergent curriculum where teachers respond to children’s interests, rolling in math and science where it fits logically, often doing story-time, snack, and circle outdoors. To learn more, search for “forest kindergarten” on YouTube or check out www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBoXaQKoWL0
  • Academic preschools. There are preschools that have an academic focus that are taught in developmentally appropriate ways. But there are also schools which drill rote facts into children. These children will in fact learn to read words younger than they might otherwise have done, but this doesn’t appear to give them a long-term advantage. An occasional worksheet is a good experience for kids as preparation for future school experiences, but a worksheet-based curriculum is not appropriate for a 3 year old. (Read more:  www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=134)
  • Cooperative preschools. Most cooperative preschools are balanced programs with time split between play-based learning at learning centers (e.g. dress-up area, block area, art, sensory), circle time (includes story time, literacy skills, and concepts like days, seasons, colors, etc.) and outdoor or big motor play. There is a professional teacher who plans the curriculum and leads structured activities. What distinguishes coops is parent involvement. For a 3 year old, a typical program might be attending preschool two mornings a week. On one of those mornings, the parent drops off. On the other morning, the parent stays and works in the classroom with the children. A 4 year old might go 3 days a week, with the parent volunteering one of those days. This means there is a very high adult to student ratio. Coop isn’t the best answer for a parent who needs child care so they can work or do other activities. However, for parents who have the time available, many report that they enjoy the time spent in the classroom, and like knowing more about what their child does at preschool and who the other children are in the class. Parents also have the opportunity to build friendships with other parents. Note: Cooperative preschools tend to be much lower cost than other options.
  • Head Start. For families whose income is less than 130% of the federal poverty level (i.e. less than $25,000 in 2013). Provides preschool for child, but also: medical, dental and mental health screenings, meals for the children, and support for the parents. Fact sheet: http://wsa.iescentral.com/fileLibrary/file_71.pdf. To register for Head Start: http://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/family/for-families/Inside%20Head%20Start/Frequently%20Asked%20Questions%20%28FAQs%29/HowdoIapplyfo.htm

When considering which method you prefer, it’s worth keeping in mind what we know about brain development (see this post): Children learn best through hands-on experiences with tangible materials, through interaction with engaged human beings, and in environments where they feel safe and happy.

Who are the students?

  • How many students are in the class? The number of kids per group matters as much as the student to teacher ratio does. For example, a 12 student school with 2 teachers (6:1 ratio) will feel very different from a 24 student school with 4 teachers (6:1).
  • What is the age range of the class? Some parents prefer that all the kids be as close as possible in age to each other, but many schools tout the benefits of multi-age classrooms. The oldest kids have a change to lead and mentor and may build empathy for the younger ones, and the younger ones benefit by the presence of an older role model.
  • What are the cut-off dates for age? It’s usually August 31 or September 1. If you have a child born in August, they might be the very youngest child in a program for 4 year olds. A September baby would be the very oldest. But if you’re able to find a program for 3.5 – 5 year olds, that would put them more in the middle…
  • Diversity? Are all the kids like your kid? Are all the families like your family? Or different? Which do you prefer?
  • Neighborhood: Do the kids in the program live near you? (This allows for easy play-dates outside of class, and maybe carpooling options. If you commute to a school, it can be harder to arrange play-dates.)
  • Families: If you’re doing drop-off, it may not matter as much to you because you may not interact much with them (except maybe at birthday parties), but if you’re looking at a coop you may ask more and observe more about what kinds of parents participate to see if they feel like a good match for you.

Who are the teachers?

  • Student/teacher ratio. For three year olds, NAEYC recommends a maximum group size of 18, with a student/teacher ratio between 6:1 and 9:1. In general, the smaller the better for individual attention.
  • Training. Do the teachers have degrees in early childhood education? Do they attend continuing education opportunities? Do they read books about child development in their off hours?
  • Teachers should have CPR and first aid training. There should be emergency plans for the facility.
  • Longevity / turnover. Learn how long the teachers have been there. If there are lots of new teachers in and out all the time, not only does that mean your child won’t gain the benefit of experience or consistent caregivers, it also may mean that the teachers don’t enjoy their work there! Generally, the longer the better. (Although on rare occasions, longevity can mean burned out teachers and uninvolved supervisors… That’s why we also watch the teachers to see if they enjoy their work!)
  • Do they enjoy kids? Do they sit on the floor with the kids, smile, and engage with them? Or are they standing on the edges talking to other adults, occasionally calling instructions to a child?

How do they handle discipline? What are their rules and how do they reinforce them? How do they deal with inevitable conflict between kids? How do they respond to hitting and biting? Is their discipline style similar to yours? It’s best if children have consistent experiences between home and school.

What is the learning environment like?

There are many things you can learn about a preschool on the web and over the phone and by asking friends, but really the in-person visit is the best opportunity to really learn what the school feels like.

  • Clean and Safe: Is the environment clean? Safe? Well-lit and ventilated? Are there procedures for cleaning? Policies for sick children? Fire extinguishers? First aid kits? Appropriate child proofing?
  • Materials: Is there a wide range of toys and supplies? Look for things which build large motor skills, small motor skills, imagination, literacy, number skills, social play. It’s OK if everything isn’t shiny and new. But, you do want to see materials in good condition. You want to see “enough” toys, but not so many that it’s cluttered and chaotic.
  • Outdoors space: Do they have a place to play outdoors? How often do they use it? Do they go out when it’s raining? If not, do they have some place for kids to run and move?
  • Look at the art on the walls: If it’s all the same, that tells you a teacher is focused on product more than process and very actively guides the process. If there’s a wide range of art, it shows kids are given creative range. Probably for a three year old class you want more free choice exploration, for a four year old class, you might look for more signs of structured learning.
  • Look at the ratio of desk space to open space. If the room is filled with desks, it’s clear that’s where children are expected to spend their time. If there are areas for children to move around, explore, learn socially and learn independently that shows the school values a wider range of learning experiences.
  • Look for worksheets. I once visited a school that talked a lot about how all children proceeded at their own pace, but then I saw a stack of workbooks and skimmed through. Every child was on the same page.
  • Look at the books on the shelves: non-fiction? Fiction? Personally, I want to see a mixture. Children benefit from learning factual information from non-fiction books, but their imagination and creativity benefit from good story-telling.
  • Vibe:  The most important thing you’re “looking” for is something you can’t see. How does it feel? Is it warm, nurturing, full of exciting learning experiences, and full of happy children and teachers? Or is it cold, institutional, uninvolved? We know from the science of brain development that children learn best when they are happy, so look for a place where they will be happy and engaged.

Making the Choice

After you visit a school, give yourself some time to reflect on what you’ve seen. Sometimes what feels like love at first sight sours on further reflection. And sometimes a school that didn’t seem right at first glance may grow on you. Don’t let yourself be pressured by schools that attempt to create a sense of urgency by using words like “waitlist” and “we can’t promise there will still be space” and “only one space left.” Yes, there’s a chance that a preschool will totally fill up while you’re deciding, but if it does, there are plenty of other good options out there. Assuming you live in an area with multiple good preschools (like Seattle’s Eastside!), you can trust that you’ll find something that works for you.

Often the right answer for your child may be a combination of options. Maybe you choose a two-day-a-week academic preschool and a two-day-a-week play-based. Or maybe you choose a structured five-morning program for your child, but ensure that your afternoons include quiet time at home and unstructured play with friends. Or maybe you “homeschool” on the academic skills, and seek out one-day-a-week dance classes, language classes, and so on. Choose the routine that works for you and the experience you want your child to have. Children benefit emotionally from a predictable routine. And their brains benefit from a wide array of experiences. You’ll have to work to find the balance that is right for your family, and right for your child’s temperament.