Much of a child’s life is measured by their age. Whether it’s the skills they should be developing by a certain age or what grade they’re in, a child’s early education and milestones are often determined by how old they are. However, every child is different, and two children of the same age will develop at their own pace and may experience milestones at varying stages. Age is a starting point, but it’s not necessarily the most accurate way to gauge a child’s abilities.
Since many factors can affect how children grow and develop, it’s not always beneficial to center their milestones on age.
What are mixed-age classrooms?
In a school setting, children are commonly grouped and separated by grade, and those grades are typically based on age. A mixed-age classroom, also known as a multi-age or mixed-grade classroom, is a classroom composed of children whose age range spans more than two years.
In same-age classrooms, all children learn the same material simultaneously and are expected to progress at the same pace. A mixed-age classroom can move at a more flexible and individual pace because lessons aren’t tied to age.
Benefits of mixed-age classrooms
There are many reasons why a preschool may opt for a multi-age setting versus a traditional one. Having older children coexist with younger children provides unique opportunities for growth and learning. It also offers more spaces for creative and interesting activities since children are at varying points in their development. Some other benefits of mixed-age classrooms are:
Enhanced leadership skills
Many older children will naturally take on a leadership role as younger children tend to look up to them in the classroom. This improves development in all areas for both age groups and creates more opportunities for learning.
Solely interacting with peers of the same age can naturally cause children to compare themselves to each other. Being with more children of different ages can take away some of the pressure to match everyone else’s development and progress.
More engaging activities
Group activities, games, and work can be one-dimensional if all children are at the same age. Involving children at different stages in their development means that learning activities can be more complex and foster teamwork.
More individualized education
Without being tied to age as a measure of progress, there is more freedom for children to develop at their own pace. Educators have ample time observing and learning about each child’s individual needs and learning styles and can tailor their teaching methods and activities accordingly.
In a mixed-age classroom, the same teachers can oversee a class of children of all ages. So, as children get older, they can continue to build trusting relationships with the same teachers and continue on their learning path without being disrupted by a big change.
Challenges of mixed-age classrooms
Some preschool teachers prefer a mixed-age classroom because it benefits the children. There are, however, some criticisms when it comes to this arrangement.
Lesson plans for mixed-age classrooms need to be more varied to accommodate all children of varying ages. As a result, they can take a lot more effort to create and execute in class. Teachers may need extra support in the form of professional development and training to ensure they are equipped with the right strategies to meet the needs of each age range in the group.
Some families may be skeptical about placing their children in a mixed-age classroom for preschool. They may be worried that their older children won’t be challenged enough or that their younger children may be left behind. Centers may need to take more time explaining the benefits of mixed-age groups to create buy-in for your program.
Infants tend to need more supervision and individual attention than toddlers and caring for them has different physical demands than working with toddlers. Since younger children typically require more care and attention, fewer children are assigned to a teacher when they’re under a certain age. If a program has more infants at a certain time, you might require extra staff to help keep ratios low.
Programs that serve both younger and older children will require different equipment and materials to meet the needs and interests of each age group. Teachers may also require more training and resources to implement individualized care for each child. All of these things can impact your budget and should be taken into account when planning for a mixed-age classroom.
Mixed-age classroom strategy
The best way to handle a classroom with multiple ages is to be flexible and creative. Children won’t be grouped by age, so you have more freedom in teaching. Use that to create a unique plan each year. Some of the best strategies for mixed-age classrooms are:
- Set up pairs: Encourage older children and younger children to cooperate and learn from each other by matching them up with a designated class buddy.
- Add variety to your lessons: When developing activities, games, or work for your class, create lessons that can be completed in small groups and modified to provide a challenge for children at all levels.
- Provide open-ended materials: Children of all ages can benefit from open-ended materials or loose parts that can be used in multiple ways. Children can create and explore on their own terms and observe others engaging in play.
- Create an intentional learning environment: Your classroom should be set up in a way that supports each age group in your program. Ensure that the equipment and materials provided are age appropriate and can serve the needs of both younger and older children. For instance, having a writing center with materials of various difficulty levels such as alphabet stamps, crayons, and pencils, can engage children as they develop their literacy skills.
Fun activities for all ages
Children need to be engaged in school, and an excellent way to accomplish this is to make activities fun. Some activities should be physical—getting your class up and moving—others should be challenging in a way that makes children use a variety of skills. Some great activities for a mixed-age classroom are:
- Freeze dance
- Scavenger hunts
- DIY musical instruments
- Cardboard games
- Collaborative art projects
- Making collages
- Thread painting
If you're looking for more ways to engage your preschool classroom, check out our free classroom job chart guide!
Get the most out of mixed-aged classrooms
Mixed-age classrooms can create a valuable learning environment but they also have their challenges. If you’re considering a mixed-age classroom for your program, ensure you have the appropriate resources and strategies to build on existing teaching methods and adapt to the needs of each child.