Mixed Age Play, Social-Emotional Development and Bullies versus Leaders

An older child holds the hand of a young toddler
An older child holds the hand of a young toddler

While early childhood educators, families, and neighborhood play groups have long seen the benefits of mixed-age play, researcher Peter Gray weaves together the experiential with the data and research through his newest writing collaboration, Play Makes Us Human.

This week’s newsletter relates specifically to the benefits of mixed-age play on social-emotional development. Gray’s research and observational experience all confirm that mixed-age play has some of the following social-emotional benefits:

  • Reduces bullying
  • Promotes appreciation of individual differences (i.e. makes space for the neurodiversity of the human experience even in so-called “neurotypical” children)
  • Enables socially fearful children to overcome their fears and inhibitions
  • Provides practice for parenting
  • Provides care for younger children and relief for adults

These concepts have continually been at the forefront of our philosophical approach at Treehouse Learning to consider education for a whole brain, whole person, and whole planet. Mixed-age groupings facilitate optimal learning environments and opportunities! This is especially true in the context of our inaugural River Summer Camp program where we offer camp experiences to early elementary-aged children (did you know that “early childhood education” encompasses the developmental span between birth-age 8?). 

During the day, the “Big Kids” join the infants at Big Circle, and at times the older children combine with the preschool children during before/aftercare. Our service projects have included projects like replenishing woodchips to make climbing structures safe and reading aloud to youngers, which leaves the older children feeling really good about making significant and meaningful contributions on behalf of our whole community. This week in particular, due to the holiday week and low numbers, was an especially beautiful opportunity to see the older children step into leadership roles. We saw our River children act as nurturing guides, teachers, encourages, and models for appropriate social expectations of what to do (as opposed to labeling, judging, or shaming kids to not do something we find unhelpful).  

As we’ll learn more during the Parenting Workshops on Parenting Beyond Power offered by Jen Lumalan, challenging behavior, even behavior that we typically label as “bullying behavior” is a misguided attempt to get our needs met based on our belief systems. Sadly, we typically perpetuate the same dynamics and patterns that are most familiar to us, whether or not they are effective or beneficial. When we focus on recognizing and understanding the needs of all humans, whether children or adults, we can more easily recognize that needs are not in conflict. But when we attempt to exert “power-OVER” in a well-meaning attempt to control behavior, we ultimately teach children that it is okay and acceptable for them to find someone younger/smaller/with less power than themselves. 

Through mixed-age play, children support and guide one another to navigate complex social dynamics in ways that benefit all children and lead to empathy. While it may be an easily-understood reaction to worry that the older children will trample and bully the younger children, the opposite is actually true in the context of a safe and supportive mixed-age play environment. The older children become helpers, guides, and coaches, inviting younger children into learning through play-based peer interactions far more effectively than through adult-led instruction or directives. 

In my own household, we’ve got 4 children spanning in ages from 11- 2, with the youngest 3 currently at Treehouse Learning for the summer. Literally, our house is a mixed-age petri-dish or playground, depending on the day! (Full disclosure: we often see patterns at home of older children bossing/pushing/snatching toys from a younger sibling, who then pretty much does the same thing to the next child down the line, or our puppy)

As a parent, I was curious how it would work out when the siblings combine on the playground at the end of the day at Treehouse Learning!  While I’ll admit surprise to see my 2nd oldest child doing “The Worm” on the floor during our Big Circle Gratitude Dance, I also saw him engaging and playing with his toddler brother (and his toddler peers) with gentleness and joy. He bubbled over with excitement in sharing how much they all loved getting to read stories to the toddler classrooms this week too, and has so much pride in making the younger babies laugh and smile.

I’ve also gotten to witness his positive influence rub off on his younger sister, who found incredible vocabulary and patience to explain the entire game of Go Fish to her 2-year-old brother and wants to teach him to do all sorts of helpful things, like wash dishes. A human need that all of us share is the need for meaning and purpose. Every one of us shares the core need to contribute to something greater than ourselves. Mixed-age groupings create space for this need to be met!

While anecdotes do not make data (“anec-data”), our observations as a program plus my own personal observations via afront-row seat watching child development unfold have also confirmed Dr. Gray’s research that a safe and supportive mixed-age environment reduces bullying and provides so many tangible practice experiences for healthy social development and interactions. Not only does play make us human but play, especially in multi-age settings, is how nature designed us to learn!

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