Mixed-Age Groups – Win, win?
By Annette Rawstrone
Monday, September 28, 2020
One benefit of coronavirus is that mixed-age groups have become a practical reality in some settings. By Annette Rawstrone
When children returned after lockdown to Red Hen Day Nursery in Legbourne, Lincolnshire, they moved into mixed-age bubbles, instead of being separated by age. This practical management solution has brought so many benefits for the children that staff have no plans to return to the old model of separate baby, toddler and pre-school groups.
‘We’ve always been proud of the family feel of the nursery and would come together for mealtimes and in the nature area, but it was not truly embedded in practice,’ says owner Jane Harrison. ‘Being closed during most of lockdown gave us the opportunity to rejig what we do, and we kept returning to the idea of mixing the age groups.’
It was anticipated that there would be fewer very young children returning to nursery, which could have led to limited numbers in the baby and toddler groups and problems with staffing. By mixing ages, children are able to ‘fit into a bubble’ when they choose to return, rather than needing to wait for ratios to balance within their age group.
Importantly, mixed-age bubbles mean that siblings, cousins and family friends are accommodated together, which reduces the risk of coronavirus spreading to more than one bubble if there is an outbreak at the nursery. Parents also only need to deal directly with a member of one bubble when they drop off and collect their children at the entrance to their allocated area.
Staff from the baby, toddler and pre-school teams have been allocated to each bubble so that there is a range of specialisms. Ratios are higher than necessary to accommodate the younger children, but staff are more comfortable with this because they are mainly in the rural nursery’s large outdoor area.
BENEFITS AND CHALLENGES
Childminders have always operated with mixed-age groups and successfully delivered the EYFS, while some nurseries have also worked with this model for years. Historically, there was a shift to grouping by age after the Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations included recommended adult:child ratios. There is no guidance that suggests different-aged children must be kept apart throughout the nursery day. While Ofsted is happy to register mixed-age settings, there is no formula for calculating ratios.
Research has found that mixed-age grouping can be a beneficial approach:
- ‘Often, a child will like to spend time with younger children as they will allow them to be unsophisticated longer than his or her age peers will.’ (Katz et al, 1990)
- ‘In a group of children of mixed ages, they have different expectations of each other. The younger children may look to the older ones for some contributions, whereas the older children look upon the younger ones as needing their contributions. It is recognised that there is more turn-taking, social responsibility and sensitivity in mixed-age group children.’ (Chase and Doan, 1994)
- ‘In an age-mixed environment, older play companions erect scaffolds that draw toddlers into collaborative social play.’ (Konner 1976)
- ‘It is a most unnatural and cruel thing to put people of the same age together. It is one of the cruel things we do to children; it breaks the thread of social life, there is no nourishment for social life.’ (Montessori, 1949)
Early years consultant Penny Tassoni agrees that there are many benefits to having mixed-age groups. For example, older children gain confidence and empathy, while younger children gain greater aspiration to join in and have access to more challenging resources. She says it can be ‘incredibly advantageous’ for supporting sibling relationships too.
‘There needs to be very good awareness and thoughtfulness about what is put out and what children can access,’ warns Ms Tassoni. ‘While older children can perhaps moderate their impulses to a certain extent, two- and three-year-olds want to move and explore and can be quite exuberant, which may not be good with a baby around.’
Ms Tassoni says staff need to be mindful of children’s development, especially in communication and language, to make sure opportunities are not reduced for younger children in a mixed-age group. Also, activities need to be challenging for older children, while also enabling younger ones to have ‘meaningful participation’, rather than being restrained in high-chairs watching, for example, during cooking sessions.
‘It is about staff knowing their children well, being able to think ahead and let themselves be the judge,’ she says. ‘There may be times when it is better to have separate groups of children, such as crawling babies away from a three-year-old who is building a tower. The model of mixing ages needs to be underpinned by high levels of connection, practically and emotionally, between staff and children.’
FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
Coping and scaffolding
‘I read the research and wonder why we are segregating the children so much in this country,’ says Red Hen Day’s Mrs Harrison. ‘It can be especially challenging when you get a load of two-year-olds together without the verbal skills to communicate with each other. Snatching and the problems of sharing or “me, me, me” has dissipated because they are learning how to share and do things together. We are finding now that the older children are giving the toddlers the skills to cope with situations and the little ones are looking up to the older ones who are scaffolding learning. I feel it’s win, win, win.’
Settling in and learning
She believes that the family groups have helped children settle back into the nursery environment after a long period away because of the reassurance of familiar children, especially siblings.
A few parents expressed concern that their four-year-old would not learn as much alongside younger children, but staff have found the opposite. ‘Often the older children find a way of explaining things to younger children which challenges them and supports them to embed more learning themselves,’ explains Mrs Harrison.
Another concern has been integrating crawlers, but staff have found that the older children show empathy and look out for them. Mrs Harrison is currently evaluating how they will manage babies who are not mobile, but she feels it will be possible to integrate them into the bubbles.
‘Ofsted requires babies to be in a safe area. I feel we can successfully manage this and at the same time enhance babies’ experiences,’ she adds.
A new way of working
Staff are enjoying the new way of working. ‘They find that they are able to take a step back and they are learning a lot from observing the children interact and seeing every stage of development,’ says Mrs Harrison.
‘There is a positive atmosphere and ambience, one of family and fun where staff can connect with the children. I don’t see why it isn’t done more. Society has hooked in to putting loads of children from the same age group together, like old people in homes, and expected them to thrive. There has got to be a mind shift.’
CASE STUDY: Larkhill Church Day Nursery, Somerset
‘Reopening after lockdown forced us to embrace new ways of working,’ says Claire McSevney, manager of Larkhill Church Day Nursery in Yeovil, Somerset.
‘Around half of our children returned, aged from nine months to four years. For us to continue to provide quality childcare with the staff available and remain financially viable, it made sense to create two mixed-age bubbles.
‘We already plan for individual children every week, and there was a staff member in each bubble who was very familiar with every child, so that was not a problem. We found that children behaved very differently in the new groups. One child who can have behaviour difficulties grew in confidence and became a role model to the younger children. It was nice to see younger children look up to the older ones, new friendships being formed and it reinforced a family feel.
‘It was good for children without siblings to experience playing with children of different ages. Also, when it came to resettling children into nursery, having siblings together was reassuring, but we did find that sometimes the older siblings would dominate.
‘Having mixed ages meant that the older children needed to be more supervised than usual when it came to using resources such as hammers and scissors. These activities became more adult-led, but we found that the older children enjoyed explaining to the younger ones how to use the tools.
‘Staff found working across the age groups very helpful for their CPD. There is a tendency to work with one age group, so this made them undertake more research, which they enjoyed.
‘We ran the combined age groups until the end of summer term. We want to continue much more mixed-age working, although we do not feel our building lends itself to doing it permanently. Also, with a higher number of older children, there is the concern that younger children may become “lost” if we did this long term.
‘Along with a family feel, there are many benefits, including boosting self-esteem. Younger children have something to aspire to, while older children benefit from seeing children learning to walk, falling and getting back up. They can see their own “journey” and the perseverance needed to continue learning.’
- Full Circle: A New Look at Multi-Age Educationby Penelle Chase and Jane Doan (eds)
- The Case for Mixed-Age Grouping in Early Education by Lilian G Katz, Evangelou Demetra and Jeanette A Hartman
- Relations Among Infants and Juveniles in Comparative Perspective by Melvin J Konner
- The Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori
- Free to Learn by Peter Gray
- The Special Value of Children’s Age-Mixed Play by Peter Gray
- ‘All in one’ about Foundation Stage units and ‘Mixed-age settings’ are at: www.nurseryworld.co.uk