Mixed-age learning environments are all around us, and we naturally experience them from birth. Mixed-age setting provides a group atmosphere resembling family life more closely than the highly regimented institution of our schooling system.
At home, at work, in families, in our neighborhoods, and in social lives, we work, play, engage with, and learn from people of all different ages, generations, experiences, and backgrounds.
It is interesting to consider why, as a culture, we would have the notion that anything outside of mixed-age learning experiences is natural or optimal. In fact, placing children into same-age settings is actually an institutional function, not a human one, and it is typically done out of convenience based on age, not individual learning or developmental needs!
Lillian Katz, one of the researchers and writers on mixed-age learning environments puts forth a fascinating thought for consideration in a book on the topic,
“Although humans are not usually born in litters, we seem to insist that they be educated in them. To a large extent, the organization of our schools seems to be based on a factory model which uses an assembly line to subject homogenous materials to identical treatments in order to yield uniform products.”
It is worthwhile to critically examine whether age-based segregation is actually effective in supporting individualized learning needs, or whether it helps or hinders our ability to see a learner as a whole person with their own developmental trajectory and timeframe. Even within a same-age cohort, there is already a wide variability in developmental milestones across physical, social-emotional, and cognitive domains despite the tendency to assume all 4-year-olds should think, behave, or learn similarly or can effectively be measured with the same uniform yardstick.
Peter Gray, the notable developmental psychologist who has written extensively on the subjects of learning and play also describes,
“Throughout most of human history, age-mixed play was the norm. Only with the advent of age-graded schooling and, even more recently, of age-graded, adult-supervised activities outside of school, have children and adolescents been deprived of opportunities to play with others across the whole spectrum of ages. In the course of human evolution, play came to serve its educational functions in age-mixed settings; I contend that it still serves those functions best in such settings.”
Additionally, Head Start’s research-based Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center recognizes the benefits of mixed-age groupings to provide continuity of care, or a “term used to describe programming and policies that ensure children and families are consistently engaged in high-quality early learning experiences through stable relationships with caregivers who are sensitive and responsive to a young child’s signals and needs.”
The research also points to the benefits of mixed age grouping to increase the opportunity to build secure, attached relationships as well as support children’s social and emotional development (Ruprecht 2016) and provide ample time for caregivers to learn about the individual needs of the child and to develop positive working partnerships with families ((McMullen, Yun, & Kim 2016).
One of the hallmarks of a Montessori-based approach is mixed-age classrooms as well. Maria Montessori was a scientist who based her methods on observation, implementation, and revision.
She recognized and observed that children learn in different ways and that a mixed-age grouping was foundational to this learning. In a Montessori-inspired classroom, the environment is intentionally considered and prepared as a “teacher.”
Children learn through exploratory and inquiry-based experiences that lead to learning through activities and materials that are engaging, developmentally appropriate, and challenging without being daunting. Additionally, in a Montessori approach, children are given meaningful work that builds competence, confidence, and life skills, and observation (rather than testing) is the primary method of assessing a child’s growth.
Maria Montessori directly observed, and subsequent research since then has confirmed, that learning happens effectively in mixed-age groups.
Mixed Ages and the Zone of Proximal Development in Childcare Settings
The mixed-age approach is also closely aligned with the work of the Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who introduced the phrase “Zone of Proximal Development,” or ZPD. The ZPD refers to the liminal space between what a child can do independently, and what they can’t yet do, even with assistance.
This can easily be imagined in a Venn diagram- on one side is a child’s current skills, knowledge, and experience, which corresponds to what they can do independently easily at their current level of mastery. The opposite circle represents what is still entirely beyond reach, or the things a child can not yet do, even with assistance.
In the overlapping space is the ZPD, or what children can do with the assistance, support, or help provided by the socially scaffolded environment around the child. Vygotsky understood all learning to occur within a social context. Attachment Theory also supports that safe and secure attachment relationships are critical conditions for learning.
The term, “scaffolding” is a metaphor to describe the process by which the more skilled participant (an adult or another child) enables the novice to engage in a shared activity by widening the ZPD. As in a scaffold on a building, the supports are gradually removed. A skill that was previously only achievable through scaffolded assistance is now easily achieved independently, and the child then has the opportunity to lead others into learning.
Within the zone of proximal development, a child can take risks, overcome challenges, build resilience, and cultivate a growth mindset. Quite simply, children stimulate each other’s growth!
This is because development across domains doesn’t necessarily correspond to age, but rather, it occurs unevenly and sequentially. An optimal learning environment, therefore, supports a large, but not too large, variety of developmental ranges to make the ZPD as expansive as possible.
Learning is a Process, Not an Outcome in Early Childhood Care and Education
We want to support a wide range of development across domains within a classroom setting because learning is social and occurs in relationships! Our discussion around the benefits of mixed-age learning environments also emerges out of an understanding of the learning process itself, grounded in research on child development, developmental psychology, and neuroscience.
Learning is a physiological process that uses all of our senses and our entire body. We can view learning as the outcome of the following process: 1) Input, 2) Synthesis or processing, and 3) Output. In other words, learning occurs when we can observe the process of learning occurring.
A child will first observe, watch, or listen. Then, a child will practice or embody what they’ve learned, and finally, share that knowledge through teaching others. We often use the adage, “watch it, do it, teach it.”
Even in the Latin-based Liberal Arts tradition, learning is understood in relation to the “trivium,” or the “place where 3 roads converge.” The first stage is called the grammar stage, which is analogous to the “naming” of the world around us or inputting information. This is followed by the stage of logic where information is processed and synthesized into understanding. The final stage is called rhetoric, which is analogous to knowledge, which is shared as wisdom through teaching.
If we think about our own aptitude for learning information, merely inputting it into our heads doesn’t usually result in it sticking permanently- we must integrate learning into our bodies via experience for it to be actually stored in our mental “hard drive.”
So it is with children too- rote memorization or the superficial absorption of information is not the same as true learning, which by definition requires experience, practice, and patience, and is also dependent on where we are in our development. True learning is a process, not an outcome!