Tag Archives: multi-age

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 2.5 – 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?

First, it’s because we want whole families to be able to participate. We’re a Saturday class, which means kids aren’t in school or in their regular daycare setting. We’re also a cooperative class, meaning that parents work in the classroom once a month, and attend a parent education session once a month, so it’s not like a drop-off situation where they could drop one child off while they went elsewhere with the other child. 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 they all understand the ideas you’re trying to convey?

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 preschool age kids (age 3.5 – 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 under 3’s, don’t get the scientific concepts at all. And we don’t expect them to. What they get is a great toddler 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. We 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. Last year, we did have one six-year-old girl who wished that there were more older girls in the class. But most of the older kids enjoyed the wide age range.

Our younger kids love having the big kids to follow around. They learn from them, play with them, sit in their laps. 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. This class is not suited for all 2.5 year olds. For example, a child who still mouths objects would not be a good fit for the class, because we do sometimes have out small objects that are a choke-able size. The little ones who have older siblings at home and/or in the class do the best in the class. The ones who are only children or only have a baby sibling take a little longer to adapt to the class. But again, it’s a great chance for them to practice learning from and interacting with older playmates since they don’t get this at home.

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 putting 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.

I’m not sure we could do this age range if we weren’t a co-op. If it was just 3 teachers and 24 kids, we simply couldn’t handle all the customization and individualized coaching we do. But because we also have 3 working parents there each week (and plenty of hanging-out-and-playing parents), we can do a lot more. It’s not unusual to have a 2 children per adult ratio, which gives us the flexibility to make this a great experience for everyone.

We’re about to start a new year with a new batch of kids, and I can’t wait!

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

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…