Big and little: why age doesn’t matter in friendship and learning


I recall feeling mixed emotions when I first learned a year ago that the Harbour Village, The Harbour School’s Prep program, will introduce mixed-age (ages 4, 5 and 6) classes. Will this work? I was nervous about the lesson planning and skeptical about the outcome while feeling curious about the change and intrigued by the possibilities. Not having worked with mixed-aged groups before, I really had no idea what to expect.


Fast-forward to the end of this school year and I marvel at all that we - teachers and students - have learned together. I recall the concerns I had a year ago which now seemed silly; it turned out that age really did not matter as much as I thought it might in friendship and learning. Age certainly did not matter to the children. Students gravitate toward each other based on interests, personalities, style of communication and play. They bond over Star Wars, Pokemon, My Little Pony and Beyblades. They co-create narratives in pretend play and dress-ups, share knowledge about princesses, dinosaurs and sea creatures and commiserate over the all-important recess time ending too soon.


Socially and academically, I observed older students display independence, confidence and leadership qualities. Having a younger audience seemed to motivate older children to lead and demonstrate what they know. It taps into their empathetic and nurturing instincts, especially for those without siblings at home or who need a confidence boost.


It was sweet to see a five-year old teach a four-year old how to write his name and heartwarming when a six-year old showed a four-year old how to read a recipe to make dough. In fact, the older student did not know how to read the recipe herself, but she was motivated to ask a teacher to show her so she could read it back to the little one. The outcome of these two instances were that the five-year-old gave herself a chance to practice writing her letters whilst the six-year-old learned how to read a recipe. I realised from these observations that a mixed-aged environment bring about social opportunities that capitalize on the differences in the experience, knowledge, and abilities of the children.


Likewise, the younger students benefited from having older students around. They loved copying all the cool things their older classmates do. Often, I’ve seen younger students set personal goals by watching older students. I’ve heard a younger child say, "When I turn five, I will be able to climb the monkey bars by myself" or "I want to learn how to do that!" A younger child's ability and motivation to learn from his older peer is probably the most amazing benefit I’ve witnessed. This has really spurred younger children’s progress in both social interaction and academic pursuits. Of course, not every behaviour demonstrated by older students (or even younger ones) are always exemplary. However, this is just like real life. Children had to learn to differentiate between actions worth following and trust their own instincts to make good choices.


As for me, I felt my growth as a teacher and really benefited from the shift of teaching to each student’s readiness than age. By setting aside age groupings and focusing instead on each child's abilities. When we teach Math and Literacy in small groupings based on the children's readiness levels, it was eye-opening to see each group reveal a mix of children of varying ages, learning styles, passions and interests. It was a wonderful surprise to see some younger students to be just as skilled in reading and writing and participating in discussions as the older students. The mix made for a livelier learning environment. Having mixed-aged groups reminded me the importance of helping the children flourish by meeting individual needs instead of expecting students to meet set standards together. This perspective helped me become closer to my students and more appreciative of the daily self-determination and resilience in their learning.


The mixed-age classroom is like a family and it really functions beautifully like one. It’s worked so well that my newest worry is how much the little ones will miss their older classmates rising to Grade 1 in the new academic year. But then, it’ll be their turn to nurture and lead the incoming, younger kindergartners.

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