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Developing curriculum for children in mixed age groups

Kathleen Tuite


Wednesday 29 June 2016

Is your curriculum designed to follow the interests of children? Is it open-ended enough to meet the needs of mixed-age groupings? With the introduction of the second free pre-school year many practitioners are wondering about their curriculum.  How will they cope with children from maybe 2 and a half years old to 5 years plus, all in the same group? What will their curriculum look like over 2 years?

We know that for many years, long before the introduction of the free preschool year, pre-school settings have been places where children of varied age groups play together. We know that children learn from one another - the younger children learn how to engage in play and how to develop play stories and roles, the older children learn how to engage and manage the younger children and how to be good mentors and teachers.  Indeed, back in the 1930’s, the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky coined the phrase 'zone of proximal development' (ZPD) to refer to this very practice of learning from more capable others.  Children, he says, can achieve skills and thinking levels in interaction with others that they cannot manage alone.  This is what learning is about. We see it every day in families - children clean, cook, shop, paint, plant and build with help from others - all skills that they could not accomplish alone. Jerome Bruner used the term 'scaffolding' to describe the supports we give. The scaffolds are there until the building is capable of standing on its own. Children get the supports they need from one another and from adults, until they have mastered the skills themselves.

In early childhood settings, we recognise that when younger children play with older children they display higher levels of involvement in complex play, use more sophisticated expressive language (descriptions, vocabulary and conversations) and engage in more negotiation and problem solving.  But there are also benefits for the older child in these mixed-aged groupings. The older child demonstrates more responsibility and leadership, and discovers how to involve the younger child in their play and how to be kind, caring and persuasive.  These are very important leadership and management skills.

When developing a curriculum to support these mixed age groupings, we need to consider children’s interests, questions and experiences. We need to recognise that long before children enter pre-school settings they come with knowledge, dispositions, abilities, needs, interests and theories about how the world works. When we find out what children already know and what they are enquiring about, we can begin to plan how to extend and support their further learning and development. Harnessing children’s interests can be the stimulus for a relevant, meaningful and stimulating curriculum for all ages.  It is called an emergent curriculum.

Over the next few weeks, we want to think and talk more about what this kind of curriculum looks like in practice. We'd love you to join in the conversation, so we really welcome your comments and thoughts in the comment box below.


10 comments Comments

10 Responses

  1. Niall says:

    Looks great Kathleen!

  2. Ann Keating O'Neill says:

    Great Blog. Look forward to reading more.

  3. Kathleen Foley says:

    Great Blog Kathleen looking forward to following it. I am delighted that the second year will give the mixed age group again. In Montessori it is “vertical classification” mixed age groups are more like what any family may experience except where their may be sets of twins

  4. Kathleen Tuite says:

    Thank you for your comments Niall, Aine and Kathleen. Looking forward to hearing more and our audience growing!

  5. ljoyce says:

    I agree with your comment Kathleen that finding out the child’s current interest, knowledge, theories and needs are key to providing stimulating and challenging experiences. There are many educators who are very experienced in providing for mixed age group and I would love to hear practical examples of how they do this.

  6. Sharon O'Neill says:

    Very interesting Kathleen, I like your comment about the importance of open ended materials. I think these are the secret in facilitating a wide interest base, and children adapt them so readily to fulfil their own play needs. Example we have set of sticks in outdoor area,last week one group used them to build camp fire, another group were building a zoo and used them to fence animals and another group used them dare I say as weapons in power rangers!!!!

  7. Kathleen Tuite says:

    It’s great to hear from you Sharon, how the children in your setting are making their own use of ‘open ended materials’. What fun?

  8. Aileen Healy says:

    I think it is really important that service providers develop their programme of activities around the children’s interests . This is particularly important in full day care services where the pre-school child spends over five hours in the service , the programme needs to be engaging and fun for the child . Well done to ECI for the interesting Blogs

  9. Olivia Murray says:

    Kathleen, I am delighted to see that you are exploring this topic.. I recently participated in the LINC training and i suppose a key area of interest for me in this course was the differentiated curriculum. Differentiation is not just about accomodating the needs of children with additional needs but recognising that each child has indiviual learning needs and each child has a different way of learning, As many of the contributors above have mentioned we need to recognise the indiviual experiences of learning that children bring with them to pre-school, in particular respecting their funds of knowldge and building on these. I think the challenge for practitioners lies in the adult directed learning that takes place in early years settings particularly in how we manage small group times and large group times. We must ask ourselves how can we ensure that small group and large group times accomodate the individual learning needs and approaches within the mixed aged groups in our pre-schools? How can we make these learning opportunities exciting and interesting for children and are adult directed activities based on observations of childrens interests or are they something we feel we have to do.
    To ensure that we sustain children’s interest in learning and enable them to achieve their potentail we must be willing to open our minds to new learning too. This blog can stimulate our thinking so thank you for this interesting Blog !

  10. Kathleen Tuite says:

    Thank you Olivia for reading the blog and for your very insightful comments, it is wonderful to hear from like-minded people!

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