My original Early Years training background was in Montessori Teaching. Maria Montessori was a pioneer of Early Years education. She supported children having free access to the materials they used. She advocated for three-hour ‘work’ cycles, and she believed in following children’s interests, through observation. Over 110 years on, there are aspects of her approach that we might take exception to, but in my mind, she was of her time. We must remember that she was a trailblazer. She originally wanted to be an engineer but changed her mind and became a medical doctor instead. Both of these careers were considered unseemly and off limits for women, but she was not to be put off. Her broad philosophy was that children are capable and should be active participants in their own learning. Some aspects of the implementation of this philosophy is reflective of how children were seen in society at that time. Looking at her principles, I believe, we can see that if she were here today, she would be an advocate for children exploring and thinking in an open-ended way with all kinds of materials, including the modern technology that we have available to us today.
Age ranges in learning groups
However, one aspect of her approach that I believe has totally stood the test of time is the belief that children learn from each other and that ideally there is a three-year age range in the groups in a setting, for example: three-to-six years, six-to-nine years and nine-to-twelve years. Of course, the grouping we are most familiar with in Ireland is three-to-six years.
Back in 2018, Sarah O’Leary, from Cheeky Cherubs in Cork, wrote a Scéalta blog post called Mixing the ages. In this post, Sarah outlines how the introduction of the second ECCE year prompted them to reflect on how to best provide for this in their settings. This lead to the introduction of mixed age groups in her rooms. She outlines benefits for siblings being together, for children who don’t have siblings learning from children of different ages, she discusses the positive impact it can have for children of differing abilities and for those who do not speak English as their first language. She says ‘It has been our experience that these children have transitioned into mixed groups well. With varying ages, abilities and expertise within each group, the children are very accepting of each other and understand that everyone is different and unique. We have observed that being in a mixed age group gives children opportunities to develop meaningful relationships with a variety of children, who all have their own interests, abilities, and challenges regardless of any diagnosis’.
I recently dipped into John Holt’s book called How Children Learn (1967, 1983). In this he discusses how children learn and various ways in which adults can actually hinder learning unintentionally. He says this can happen when adults go into ‘teacher mode’ and overload children with information. When this happens, children (or indeed adults) can switch off. He says it is a very human reaction to dislike being confronted with people who know a great deal more about a subject that we do. He says ‘Even in the privacy of our own minds, we do not like to feel ignorant and stupid.’ And I really like his theory that ‘One of the reasons why children learn so well from children a little older than themselves may be, not just that the older child understands the language of the younger and can speak in his terms, but that he is a more helpful competence model because he is more within reach.’ And he mentions that a child who is slightly older who can do things slightly better is a more useful expert, than the much more knowledgeable adult who can do things superbly well.
It is such a relevant point, when we think of mixed age groupings, the notion that children will learn better from their slightly older peers, who understand the young child’s perspective. The slightly older peer will demonstrate their expertise in a way the younger child will understand and will know when enough knowledge has been imparted. And while John Holt doesn’t refer to the older child learning from the younger child, I feel this is a huge benefit too. The older child gets a sense of caring, and of empathy. As Sarah O’Leary says ‘The children love having friends older and younger, as their experiences are extended and challenged through observing and sharing with each other.’
The concept of mixed age groupings is around a long time. Maria Montessori says in her book The Absorbent Mind, ‘the mind of a five-year-old is so much nearer than ours to the mind of a three- year-old, that the little one learns easily what we should find hard to impart. There is a communication and a harmony between the two that one seldom finds between the adult and the small child.’
The social, emotional and intellectual benefits of mixed age grouping are immense, in my opinion.