Enabling Environments

Mixed Age Groups

  • Mixed Age Groups

When younger and older children are allowed to mix, both groups can enjoy the social and educational benefits, explains Juno Hollyhock…

In a previous life I used to run play schemes for children of various ages. One of the biggest challenges was moving them on once they grew too old. They were too grown-up for ‘play’ schemes but too young to be left on their own by their families; they didn’t fit into childcare or into independence. Such is the twilight world of the tweeny.

Because the nature of our schemes was such that they linked into breakfast clubs and after-school clubs for local infant and junior schools, we saw a lot of our children, and many of them almost grew up with us – and with each other. On one occasion we decided to relocate some of the older children to a new scheme that we were providing elsewhere, where they wouldn’t be so bothered by the younger ones and could have more grown-up activities. This meant less messing around with the babies in the ball pond in over-heated, stifling, primary-coloured environments (this was pre-LTL days so I can be cut some slack here… ) and more trips to ice skating, the beach and the cinema. What we had failed to take into account was the astonishing bond that the younger children had built up with their older peers.

Day one was a disaster. The younger children looked for their older friends and couldn’t find them and then refused to play, and the older ones were strangely grumpy and sulky, and more teenage-like than we had ever seen them. We had made the mistake of splitting up our family. We also still had the ongoing problem of a dozen or so 12–15-year-olds hanging around outside with their grubby noses pressed to the window begging for handouts of the orange squash that they had previously treated with scorn and derision.

One of the reasons for dividing the ages was capacity; we had a lot of demand and accommodating increasing numbers of children in one place was more of a challenge. We also felt that we were not doing the best by the older children, as they inevitably ended up taking part in younger activities rather than it being the other way around. However, once we realised that splitting the children up was causing them to enjoy our provision less, we restructured.

The older ones came in as junior leaders on a funded training scheme, where they could have access to as much squash as they wanted whilst being surrogate older brothers and sisters to the little ones as well as helping pack stuff away and wash paint brushes whilst obtaining first aid and food hygiene certificates. The previously hived-off middle ages came back into the fold and we dealt with the capacity issue by doing more outside in natural environments, where space was less limited. While this meant that greater ratios were needed, we could employ more sessional staff on the cost savings from getting to and accessing the indoor play facilities and activities.

Time was given to mixed-age activity and old friendships quickly grew again across the key stages, behaviour settled and the children were, well, happier.

I always think of this experience when I see infant and junior schools dividing up their playgrounds. Yes, of course we need to be mindful of the risks of the older boys’ flying football, but this is manageable through careful allocation of space for these types of activity. The benefits for both younger and older children of mixing with each other, at least some of the time, are both educational and social for each group.

Early years settings don’t always have access to older children to engage in this mixed activity, but is there a local secondary school that could build a relationship with the setting? Are there older children who might like some work experience after school for a day a week, perhaps? If well managed, this can bring some very strong benefits. There are clear learning outcomes for secondary pupils in explaining concepts and learning points to young children; doing so embeds understanding and knowledge in a unique way, and gives a powerful motivation to learn the concepts in the first place. For younger children, the presence and friendship of older ones gives them role models they can relate to and a sense of family at school or nursery, an important and comforting concept at this age.

Juno is former executive director of Learning through Landscapes, which offers a range of services to support outdoor learning and play in the early years. Its membership resources and publications provide a regular supply of fresh activity ideas, and it offers on-site support through advisory visits and half-day, full-day or twilight training sessions for nurseries.