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Mixed-Age Preschool: Benefits and Challenges

My daughter, Cee, is almost two-and-a-half. Five mornings per week, she is cared for by an in-home childcare provider I’ll call Amanda. On a given day, Amanda and an assistant care for between four and eight kids ranging in age from one to six years old. The one-year-olds are just starting to walk. The six-year-old, who also attends half-day kindergarten, can read and write.

One of the reasons why we chose Amanda’s for childcare is that it allows Cee to interact with kids of different ages. When I first visited Amanda’s, the problem-solving and conflict resolution that I observed among the older kids impressed me. It was refreshing to watch, particularly after visiting chaotic childcare centers with rooms of as many as 10 two-year-olds. I imagined that Cee would learn so much from observing and playing with these more mature children.

When Cee began daycare last fall, we watched as two older girls took her under their wing, reading her stories and including her in their pretend play. Suddenly Cee was acting out complex stories at home, too, as she became aware that her imagination could make all kinds of fun. She was making us coffee, asking if we wanted it hot or cold, with milk or sugar. She was hushing us because her baby doll was sleeping. And she could not stop talking about her friend, the kindergartener, who rode on a real, honest-to-goodness school bus. We also watched, proudly, when she stuck up for herself and brushed off older kids if their play was too intense for her. She seemed to make a huge developmental leap within a couple of weeks of starting childcare.

Delivering Valentines to her friends

Delivering Valentines to her friends

I’ve also noticed that the friend that Cee talks about the most at home, and the one that she hugs the longest when she says goodbye, is a little girl just 2 weeks younger than her. I’ve witnessed them engaged in complex, interactive play together, where neither is the obvious leader or follower. And while I think Cee is doing great in her mixed-age childcare setting, I wonder if I’ll feel differently about this as she gets older. We could keep her at Amanda’s through kindergarten, but when she’s four or five, will hanging out with toddlers be a bore? Should we consider moving Cee to a preschool where she’ll be surrounded by kids her own age? Is mixed-age grouping helpful for preschoolers, or does it slow them down?

Child development experts have debated the merits of mixed- vs. single-age classrooms since the 1930s. Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky was an early proponent of mixed-age learning. He thought that the best way for children to learn was through interaction with older, more competent children who could set good examples for cognition and behavior. According to Vygotsky, hanging out with older children pushes younger ones to learn more than they would be capable of learning on their own. In contrast, Jean Piaget, well-known for his theory of cognitive development, believed that children learn best from peers close in age, well-matched in knowledge, skills, and power. With their peers, children can learn to solve problems organically and to practice playing a variety of roles in solving them, rather than always being guided in how to fix things by an older, more experienced child.

Decades of research haven’t been able to clarify whether mixed-age or single-age classrooms make for better preschool environments. Some studies point to benefits of mixed-age grouping, similar to my own observations. Toddlers who have a chance to play with slightly older kids seem to develop more complex language and types of play (Rothstein-Fisch and Howes 1988; Howes and Farver 1987). And in mixed-age classes, older children have opportunities to practice leadership skills and prosocial behaviors, like helping and sharing (Derscheid 1997; French et al. 1986).

Mixed-age classrooms might also have the benefit of muddying age-based comparisons and competition between children – a good thing, I think –  because there is likely to be a naturally wide range of skills and abilities within the class. As a parent, it is hard to fret that your child is behind the curve if there is no real curve. And teachers might be more likely to work with children where they are, focusing on their individual interests and skills rather than expecting the entire class to move linearly through milestones and achievements. Plus, mixed-age classes make it logistically easier to keep the same teacher with a group of kids for several years, maybe decreasing the stress of abrupt classroom and teacher changes for young kids (Whaley and Kaplan 1992).

However, there is also a fair amount of research pointing to problems with mixed-ages, the main concern being that mixed-age classrooms don’t challenge older children enough. For example, one study found that older children in a mixed-age setting were more likely to be hanging out solo, detaching themselves from the rest of the group, than if they were in a class of closer peers (Urberg and Kaplan 1986). Another found that older children were less likely to take part in teacher-led activities in mixed-age groups, probably because it is challenging for teachers to plan activities that are appropriate for a broad range in ages (Goldman 1981).

We’re starting to see a pattern emerging here, right? Mixed-age classrooms seem to generally work well for the younger kids in the group, but the older kids might be missing out. A 2002 study headed by Adam Winsler of George Mason University illustrated exactly this pattern in a university-affiliated child development center with morning-only care and a child-centered, play-based philosophy. This study was unique in that it took advantage of the center’s switch from single-age to combined 3- and 4-year-old classrooms, tracking children’s behavioral and cognitive development during the years before and after the switch. Research assistants carefully observed the minute-to-minute activities of the children. Were they engaged in a focused, goal-directed activity? How long was their attention focused on that activity? Were they working alone, with another child (close or distant in age), or with a teacher? A limitation of this design (and most studies like it) is that it can’t be blinded, so it’s possible that the researchers were just seeing what they wanted to see. However, that specific checklist of observations decreases the chances of this being a problem.

How did the children’s behavior differ between single-age and mixed-age classrooms in Winsler’s study? When kids were in single-age classrooms, the 4-year-olds were more “on-task” and had longer attention spans for a given activity. They also spent more time with their peers and less time with their teachers compared to the 3-year-olds. But when those two age groups were combined into one room, the age differences essentially disappeared. The 3-year-olds started acting more like 4-year-olds, and the 4-year-olds started acting more like 3-year-olds. For example, in single-age classes, the 3- and 4-year-olds were working on goal-directed activities 63% and 85% of the time, respectively. When they were thrown into a room together, those numbers shifted to 71% for the 3-year-olds and 70% for the 4-year-olds.

Reading this study got me thinking about the challenges of figuring out what exactly to measure if we’re trying to quantify effectiveness of a preschool program. This isn’t my field at all, so these study methods were new to me. (And, to be fair, the Winsler study is more than a decade old, and the research methods of the field have no doubt changed since then.)

For example, what exactly does it mean for a 3-year-old to be “goal-directed”? Here’s how the Winsler paper described it:

“Goal-directed activity was defined as behavior by the child, which appeared focused, organized, and had an identifiable goal or end point to the activity… Examples of goal-directed activity… included building a structure out of Legos or some other assembly/construction materials, doing a puzzle, playing a game with rules, or engaging in an organized make-believe episode of ‘house.’ Nonexplicitly goal-directed behavior in this context included, for example, aimless wandering around the classroom, looking on into another group’s activity, repeatedly spinning a puzzle piece around one’s finger for the apparent ‘fun of it,’ and making a transition between one activity and another.”

I get that we like to see kids focused on a project or game. Learning is more obvious in this context. But I wouldn’t disregard daydreaming as unproductive activity; science is revealing that daydreaming is actually an indicator of a busy and active brain. And who’s to say that a child isn’t learning a great deal from observing other kids? Or that repeatedly spinning a puzzle piece around one’s finger isn’t the beginning of a passion for physics? Maybe being an older kid in a mixed-age group means spending less time on “school-readiness” activities and more time playing alone and developing empathy and leadership, but how much does each of these contribute to how your kid will ultimately get along in the world? How much do we really know about how kids should and shouldn’t be spending their time?

To their credit, Winsler et al. make this exact point:

“The finding that 3-year-old children in MA [mixed-age] groupings are stretched a bit behaviorally while this is not the case for the 4-year-olds would appear to give some support to the fears reported by parents who typically prefer their child to be the younger child in MA settings (Lloyd, 1999). However, it is important to point out that these data (nor the data from any other studies for that matter) do not imply that MA classrooms are bad for the older children in such classrooms. First of all, it is not clear that the outcome variables in the present study on which the age-by-age-composition interaction effects were observed (sustained activity, goal-directed activity, time spent with peers and a teacher) are predictive of child competence and later positive outcomes. Secondly, there could easily be other advantages to MA grouping for the older children (like the diversity of social experience afforded by increased gender and age desegregation or other social climate variables not explored in the present study) that balance or outweigh these findings.”

In other words, it is difficult for science to capture all the factors that might impact your child’s experience in preschool. Of the factors that we can capture, we’re not even sure how important they really are. Labeling one type of classroom as “better” and another as “worse” is bound to be a gross oversimplification. What the research does show is that the age composition of a classroom impacts how children spend their time, for better or for worse.

This research, with all its limitations, can be useful for informing education policy. For example, more 3-year-olds are now entering Head Start programs. Should Head Start classrooms mix 3- and 4-year-olds together, or should they keep them separate? If they’re mixed, then the research in this field can help highlight important aspects of teacher training, such as strategies for ensuring that children of all ages and abilities are engaged and challenged in their work. A couple of recent studies have looked specifically at the Head Start question, and again, found mixed results (Moller et al. 2008; Bell et al. 2013). There’s a lot more to learn about age composition in preschool classrooms.

Clearly "goal-directed": Collecting eggs at Amanda's

Clearly “goal-directed”: Collecting eggs at Amanda’s

I don’t know whether we’ll move Cee to a more traditional preschool before kindergarten. But I like knowing about this research, because it will keep me thinking as I watch her grow up among her dear friends. I’ll be watching to see if she seems bored or disengaged from the group. But there are other factors that will play into our decision, like the stress of moving to a new school and her attachment to Amanda. For Cee, my priorities are that she be in a place where she is happy and feels safe, has lots of opportunities to play solo or with other kids, and that she grows her confidence in social situations. And to be honest, I’m glad she’s in a place where daydreaming isn’t discouraged.

18 Comments
  1. Tara Sotherland #

    Great post…keep ’em coming!

    Like

    April 2, 2013
  2. mt #

    Thanks for this post. We currently have our 11-month-old on a waiting list for a preschool program that mixes the age groups together, but only for a portion of the day. In the mornings, they are all in their individual age groups, and then after lunch, the groups join together for mixed-age playtime. I know a few parents start pulling their older kids out of this school, because they feel that mixed-age time is more beneficial to the younger kids. But I agree with you, that there can be more to “boredom” that meets the eye. Maybe a child is developing into an introvert, maybe their daydreams and interior lives are becoming more complex and engrossing, maybe they just need a breather from the little tots (can you blame them?). Maybe they truly are bored from time to time, but I think occasional boredom is important. Learning how to come out of it and entertain oneself is a skill that pays dividends. Then again, maybe some individual kids really do start aging out of these programs. It’s great to have the research at my fingertips, but I’ll also be keeping a close eye on my little one.

    PS. Cee is adorable with her mailbag!

    Like

    April 2, 2013
    • You bring up an important point about parents pulling their older kids from mixed-age groups. That’s actually a problem in this research. The older kids represented in mixed-age groups might not be representative of the same families that sent their younger kids to the school – there’s probably some self-selection that happens there, and that could introduce some bias to the data. Just speculating, but maybe the older kids that end up staying in mixed-age groups are more likely to be socially hesitant, introverted, and their parents feel they could benefit from staying in that safe, maybe less-challenging environment. That’s actually how I feel about Cee. She’s a bit of a sensitive soul, so I think she might be better off staying where she’s at for longer. I’m more interested in growing her confidence and a range of social skills than I am concerned about her cognitive development. And I spent a lot of my childhood feeling bored, but that meant that I turned more to reading, writing, and my imagination – not all bad things!

      Like

      April 2, 2013
      • mt #

        Yes, the self-selection (or parent-selection) of the removed older children is clearly a limitation–that’s an important point. I took a peek at the Winsler study, and another comment I have (this is not my field, so I hesitate to really critique) is about the seemingly inherent preference for “goal-directed” activity. This is just an anecdote, but as a little boy, a relative of mine used to frustrate his tee-ball coaches because he’d squat in the outfield during games, and not particape in the goal-oriented activity of baseball. Turns out, he was searching the grass for bugs, nurturing a love for wildlife and ecology, a passion he still has as a young man. He’s passionate about conservation and camping–and will graduate from college next year with a degree in biology.

        Like

        April 3, 2013
        • It isn’t my field either, so I was sort of at a loss as to how to evaluate these methods. I chose the Winsler study because is seems to be frequently cited, and I had a similar reaction to the measures that were used. As I said in the post, the authors of the study admit that we don’t know if “goal-directed” is necessarily important or good or indicative of any future success. I too spent a great deal of time bored as a child. That gave me time for daydreaming, lots of imaginary (often solo) play, reading, and writing. I actually make an effort these days to include some non-goal-directed time in my day, and it’s hard!

          Like

          April 4, 2013
  3. CW #

    In my personal experience, mixed ages are better for younger kids. They love playing with the older kiddos. But older children are capable of SO much and require much more complex projects and interactions. In mixed age classrooms, they end up both directing the play and being bored.

    Like

    April 2, 2013
    • Thanks for this insight! I’m so interested in this now, I’ll definitely be watching to see how this unfolds for Cee and her peers in her mixed-age group.

      Like

      April 2, 2013
  4. Mixed age group are beneficial to all ages. The younger children have role models to follow and look-up to and the older children have the responsibility of caring and showing how things are done. This in turn helps them have a better understanding of what they have already learned. Dr. Montessori grouped children by their different developmental stages, by three year brackets. It works beautifully.

    Like

    April 2, 2013
    • I’m really happy to hear your opinion on this, as I’d love to keep Cee in her current group. You sound like you have experience with this. Are you a Montessori teacher?

      Like

      April 2, 2013
  5. maggie #

    My daughter is in a daycare where they are mixed age for part of the day, but divided along the New York required age divisions for the majority of the day (18 to 30 months, 30 to 36 months, 36 months to just before kindergarten). I see the benefit for her in being hte older kid in hte mixed age portion; she has to learn to be patient, to modify her physical responses (a hug should not be a tackle…), and several other important social skills. But the single age portions of the day are bothe where she learns to do things like her letters and sit through a whole story, and where she can participate in more robust physical activity. During mixed-age gym, there is a lot of free play, but it seems to be mostly running around and individual kids playing with individual items (balls, trucks, etc). During afternoon gym with just the pre-schoolers, the imaginative play becomes more complex. They are self-creating stories and acting them out, negotiating between themselves what the roles are, etc. They also can run races and bounce their hearts out on the bouncy-bounce without having to conform to the physical limitations of more fragile younger kids.
    So, to summarize, I see benefits to both. But in the long run, I would be surprised if you could find any studies that show any difference beyond second grade. So what if she learns some of these skills at 3, or at 5, or even 7? My goal is a happy, competent adult, not the best kindergartener on the planet🙂

    Like

    April 3, 2013
    • “So what if she learns some of these skills at 3, or at 5, or even 7? My goal is a happy, competent adult, not the best kindergartener on the planet.” Yes! Well put. Thanks for sharing your observations. I think it is clear that age composition does matter in terms of the types of interactions and learning that is happening. Whether one or the other is better depends on which measures you look at. Sounds like your daughter has the best of both worlds at her daycare.

      Like

      April 4, 2013
  6. Great post, you don’t often read about mixed-age research. As a parent who has 3 kids born close to if not on the school age cut-off date (meaning they could be either the oldest or the youngest in the class) I often thought about this issue in terms of the effects of age in the classroom. Naturally as a parent of more than one child, it’s easy to collect your own theories about how the oldest, youngest, middle (average-aged?) fare and of course the birth order literature indirectly offers some (rather speculative) evidence on the matter, so it’s refreshing to hear about the topic in regards to preschool. For what it’s worth, my mother attended a one-room school house in a small, remote coal mining town in West Virginia for a number of years and somehow graduated from university and became a teacher.

    Like

    April 3, 2013
    • Thanks, Polly! And, I wasn’t thinking about this when I wrote the post (for some reason), but I was also in a mixed-age Montessori classroom from 2.5 to 5 years old, and then again in a room with 6- to 7-year-olds. Most of my memories of that time are of doing structured individual work, which is big in the traditional Montessori setting. I know that we had circle time, and we certainly had long recesses where we all played together. My group of close friends included an age range of 2 years. We’re still friends today.

      Like

      April 4, 2013
  7. Supermouse #

    Like you, we started our twin boys in an in-home mixed-aged setting. They did very well, and we all had a wonderful relationship with the caregiver. Unfortunately, due to the economy, she had to close her doors. Since we had to find a new place for the boys, we decided that they would probably do well in a larger preschool.

    They were 3y9m when they entered the PreK program where they are now, and they seem to love it. They have lots of friends, they have child-led learning through play, they go outside most days unless the weather is really bad and it is clear they are learning a lot. They seem to love learning, which I hope continues. We try to supplement at home by going to the library regularly and taking them to fun places like playgrounds, zoos, etc. For example they told us they were learning about insects, so the next time we went to the library, we got some books about insects. Sometimes they come home with worksheet type-papers, but it is clear that they do not do that all day, or even every day.

    Also, as twins, they like to know where the other one is, but they do not spend all day clinging to each other. (They are identical and have a very close relationship, luckily they can also be independent.) More often than not, when I pick them up, they are on different sides of the room, doing different things. Then, when we get home, they play together. The only thing that really frustrates me about their current preschool is the cost…it is an excellent program, but paying for 2 at once is not easy. 🙂 We do not have the option of homeschooling, and I am very pleased with the current situation.

    Like

    April 5, 2013
  8. Love this post! I completely agree and have been guilty of, and on the receiving end of, one-downing in my seven months of motherhood so far. Here’s to being more supportive of my mommy friends, and of myself.

    Like

    April 9, 2013
  9. klr #

    What about bullying and exclusion? I’m surprised this isn’t one of the challenges you discuss. We have a 3.5 year old. She loves older kids and wants to be with them, aged anywhere from 4.5 to 6/7. Especially boys. (Well, boys of same age, too). But these older kids often have very little interest in her. They don’t want to play the same games. They push her around. Recently, one of the boys said to their teacher that our daughter always wants to play with him, but he “hates” her. And the older girls often want to do role playing where they are pushing her around. They are the “mommy” or “teacher” and she’s the baby or “younger kid”. This is in both a mixed age preschool environment (Waldorf) and in child-led play in the playground or at home. Thus, my husband and I are debating whether a mixed age pre-school is as beneficial as everyone seems to think. And whether it is better for her to be with kids who are at the same level of development. Especially in an institutional learning environment. I believe she isn’t as hurt emotionally as we would be, as she doesn’t have the emotional memory that we have. She’s fairly comfortable in her own skin. I’m more concerned that she is going to mimic this behavior. And pick up ideas that I think are too far advanced for her age. For example, after spending a few weeks doing unstructured playdates with an older girl, my daughter starting telling me she wasn’t “pretty”. Putting on clothes and asking “Am I pretty in this?” I think she is too young for the whole concept of whether physical appearance is appealing to others. Her world view is too literal for broad complex vague concepts. Yet, an older child made us, the whole family, have to go there before any of us were ready. To sum up, I just wonder if a mixed age pre-school might actually hold her back by forcing her to deal with things that she’s not ready for. With kids at the same level as her, she is able to form strong bonds with kids who like her and want to be with her. With the older kids, she finds herself being told she’s not worthwhile. My daughter spent most of her earlier years with a stay at home parent in a foreign country and we are very surprised and pleased with how articulate and confident she is now that she’s with English-speaking kids. She didn’t do the normally recommended thing, and she turned out fine, if not super fine. So, we’re questioning the conventional wisdom. And really trying not to buy into any recommendations that aren’t science based. Especially considering the cost of pre-schools. On the debate of mixed age vs not mixed age, it really sounds to us like no one knows. One article I just found on the subject is this.

    The dark side of preschool:
    Peers, social skills, and stress
    http://www.parentingscience.com/preschool-stress.html

    What do you think?

    Like

    November 23, 2014

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