Mixed age play

When we put children in a classroom full of children the same age what happens is we reduce learning opportunities. Why do we do it? A lot of this is due to institutional structures. In Early Childhood you have to have particular ratios of adults to children which is all decided by the age of the child. They are conventions we’ve inherited from an existing system and perpetuated by teacher training. These kind of regulations also cover the children’s environment and even the food they eat. Our government is changing what you are allowed to provide as food to young children to now be basically mush before you are three. If you are sharing kai (food) across your mixed age session (how to create a community) you can only provide baby food. Your play equipment can only be challenging to the youngest member. We are heading to churning out people who can’t assess risks, have problems with eating, and are only socialised to their peers.

Then we also have to talk about scaffolding as something that adults provide for children as a deliberate process, and if we are not having to scaffold we are having to provide extension. That people is what other older and younger children do to other children. It’s also what happens at home where there are less people and individual adult attention, all that lovely incidental modeling. I do not want my child to be taught social skills by her peers. I want her to observe older more experienced children, and adults modeling this. I want little kids there so she can see how far she’s come, identify what she has learnt, to tone down that “don’t you know that yet” and for her to get to show empathy (even bullies nurture babies). It’s called tuakana tiena and is as natural as eating together is to bringing people together.

At schools we do buddy reading as a timetabled activity! Reading is a social activity, especially when you are little. It is us that are making literacy an unnatural process to be taught rather than absorbed.

At our holiday programme we have 30 children to 3 adults (dictating to us that the children have to be over 5). These children sometimes come with friends and sometimes don’t. Some children are attracted to younger kids to look after them (perhaps looking back), some like to be with the big kids (looking forward?) and this can change from day to day, moment to moment, child to child. We provide stuff (old bits and bobs – “loose parts”), a few tools, paint, a field, some bush but nothing else. The kids make opportunities to learn from each other, to work together, to achieve what they can’t by themselves. I have seen children in the throes of being domineering suddenly change into nurturing when the littlest five year old needs help.


The kids in these photos haven’t all met before, they range in age from 10 to 5, have such mixed abilities and and are blessed with autism, ADHD to global developmental delay and they are working together. Unassisted, no encouragement just working. In a year, over 40 sessions, I have had to intervene 2 times and have had a quiet word about 5 times. My quiet word is usually to ask “What do you want to happen?” Or to give a commentary on what I can see, to say “is this what you meant to happen”, to ask “what could you/we do?” They usually have ideas. We do have kids who need help to play with others, who come to the adults to sort things, perhaps they have had a lot of adult input to do it for them so never learned to. Some are trained? or natural? victims. Sometimes we have a mix that works one day but having a friend come the next day changes that mix to the detriment of one child but usually they would put most adults to shame with their lack of being judgmental, ability to accept others as they are and to work around personalities to co-operate.

Interestingly we do not expect adults to learn only with their peers, work with only people born in the same year, those with the same experience, the same abilities, reading or writing level. We all have to learn to work with others. Outward bound (which I did at 20) relys on this and its instructions to a watch (14 people) are given only once under the theory that each person will remember some and that together we’ll have all the information

Children seem to me to be better as this. Why are we not learning from them.


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