In a recent article we spent time reflecting on the benefits of children in home-based childcare growing up in mixed aged groups and the value of ‘family rooms’ in some nurseries where children are not grouped as a result of their age. Upon reflection, we began to dissect the concept further and began watching and observing the children during the reflection process which then caused us to pose the question ; what if they didn’t have access to a particular resource within their early years environment? Are children within mixed aged groups at an advantage because they have access to a range of resources that aren’t necessarily associated with their age and stage of development? Or does the mixed group environment cause children to grow up and mature too soon, as everything they will need in their early years is readily accessible within the mixed ages group environment?
For example, we recently invested in a new play kitchen for our role play area, which is an area which is well loved by our older, preschool aged children generally. However, on this particular occasion, our youngest child (then 13 months) displayed an interest in our new play kitchen (complete with halogen hob!) she explored it independently finding and activating the button that made the hob glow and sizzle; a shocked expression crossed her face before she turned to an adult and signed the sign for ‘hot’ and began to blow on the hob as if to cool it down. She then began placing saucepans on each hob and her imaginative play continued and developed for a significant time after this.
Similarly, when our playroom transformed into a Chinese Restaurant as part of our Chinese New Year role play, we witnessed incredible amounts of understanding and imagination from our under twos as they played co-operatively alongside older children and participated in developing role play; pretending to cook, serve, and use traditional Chinese cutlery which required them to apply and learn skills they hadn’t experienced before but within the friendships and parameters of a mixed age group; these children gained not only invaluable interpersonal and imagination skills but also an understanding and experience of another culture and traditions that had they been in an age-based environment they may not have had the opportunity to explore in this hands-on, experiental way.
When creating and setting up learning environments for the children we care for, it’s essential that we reflect upon the potential opportunities for learning and development that may occur as a result of the enhancements we make. Whether you are preparing a ‘baby’ room or a room for preschoolers – are you providing as much risk and challenge as you can within the restraints of the room or area the children are based in?
For many of us who operate within a day nursery environment where children are grouped by age, are your rooms set up to allow for challenge and to extend their learning as much as possible? Do your babies have access to role play opportunities and real food/crockery and imaginative play experiences? If not, why not?
Whilst developmentally they aren’t expected to display imaginative play skills and an understanding of this concept until they are a bit older, the learning opportunities that providing and supporting these early experiences can provide are invaluable and can positively impact upon children’s personal, social emotional skills as well as their language development too.
Similarly, as a homebased childcare provider we have to meet a broad range of needs and interests and so there are many resources freely accessible to all of the children, regardless of their age. Obviously safety is paramount and the resources we provide are not going to cause the younger children any harm, if anything we have found that by resourcing our areas as we do enables the children to develop a better understanding of loose parts, trinkets and smaller, fragile items and instead of seeing them as a risk or potential hazard, this items compliment our environment and support the children’s learning and development as a result.
Most recently, our younger children (under twos) have shown increasing interest in our magnepads – which had they been in a different setting, resources like this would not be available for them to access until they were of preschool age. However, these children who are not even two have displayed incredible concentration, pencil grip and problem solving skills as they explore the concept of magnets and navigating how the board and pen work together to create the desired effect.
Similarly, our younger children have begun to learn to operate our action camera; learning to operate the camera and turn it on, then holding it appropriately to take photos and we are not at the stage where they are beginning to learn how to review and access the photos they have just taken – completely independently.
Within baby rooms across the sector, are there resources readily accessible that enable young children to concentrate, persevere and problem solve in this way? If not, why not?These are merely a few examples of the types of resources that have enabled our youngest children to thrive within not only a mixed-age group setting, but with interesting, challenging and thought-provoking resources that enable them to challenge themselves as soon as they feel ready to.
As a sector, do we perhaps need to re-evaluate the grouping structure within our settings? Do the benefits of mixed-age groups and ‘family rooms’ outweigh the potential risks and practicality of grouping by age group in larger settings? Admittedly in the UK the current ratios for children aged under 2 years is 1:3, 2 -3years is 1:4 and 3 Years + is 1:8 which is a major factor for settings to overcome when considering a ‘family room’ environment.
What could this look like in practice if every Early Years setting decided to adopt the ‘family room’ approach? Would we see more confident, critical thinkers? Would transitions become easier as a result as the children are used to mixing with children of different ages and stages of development? Would play for our youngest children become more purposeful and look less destructive?
As pracititoners who have seen firsthand the benefits that not only the benefit of having children of mixed ages growing alongside each other has on their learning and development, but also what providing open-ended, challenging resources enable our children to understand and achieve whilst also going against the norm and encouraging our youngest children to engage in imaginative play, use complex tools and equipment and ultimately enabling them to explore, grow and learn at a pace that is comfortable for them as individuals, rather than enforce the restrictions that an aged-based environment can incur.
Let’s all be more reflective on what we offer, the value of the play and challenge our resources offer even the youngest children, and think critically about what we can change, introduce and ultimately teach our children as a result.