The benefits of mixed-age playmates

Published 6:17 pm Friday, March 13, 2020


Community columnist

Life with a smile

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Well, I finally did it. I fully embraced my 1950s mom-self and, rather than trying to text around the neighborhood to locate my children, instead stepped outside and simply shouted at the top of my lungs — “Snyder kids! Dinnnnner!!!!”— drawing out that last word for at least five seconds.

Within a few moments, I heard the cry being taken up by small voices from several houses down the street. “You have to go home! Your mom is calling!” The refrain was repeated from house to house until, within a few minutes, my younger two children came trotting into view. 

They had been happily roaming the neighborhood in a pack — riding skateboards, sword-fighting with stick, and bouncing on any backyard trampolines they happened to encounter. Within a four-house radius of our own home, there reside more than a dozen elementary and middle-school children. They frequently hang out together in a fluid, shifting mini-horde. 

I have a theory that the secret to neighborhood playgroup success is the mixed ages. The kids around us range from preschool through middle school, often with multiple ages within a family. Particularly on these mild spring evenings, they ramble around the neighborhood together and there’s a particular vibe that arises when the group is populated by a mix of older and younger kids. 

The neighborhood isn’t the only place that I’ve seen the benefits of combining ages. My oldest daughter is wrapping up her eighth and final year at Danville Montessori School and the mixed-age classroom is one of the hallmarks of Montessori education. 

The school — which spans from 3-year-olds to fifth-graders — is divided into only three age groupings. There is “pre-primary” which encompasses two years of preschool, plus kindergarten. Next comes “lower elementary” for grades one through three, and then “upper elementary” for grades four and five. 

This arrangement of students is nothing less than magical, as older students step into the role of mentors and teachers. I’ve seen many fantastic photographs of the older and younger students working on lessons together. There’s tons of research to show that teaching a concept solidifies understanding for the student doing the teaching — and the younger students are able to get a glimpse of the mastery that they themselves can hope to achieve. 

The mixed classroom also promotes cooperation, accommodation, and tiered responsibility. While every student in the classroom is expected to help with “jobs” to keep the room running smoothly, older students are able to take on increased leadership roles and are expected to assist younger students in learning the ropes. 

I think a similar mojo arises in the neighborhood kidpack. Although they aren’t teaching formal lessons, there is a natural give and take that occurs when you’ve got a group of kids at multiple ages. Games are adapted to allow for younger kids to participate; older children take on the role of referees and peace-keepers; and someone is usually willing to give a piggyback ride when smaller legs get tired on the way back from the park. 

It’s not always blissfully communal,  don’t get me wrong. Sometimes there’s conflict and the group splinters, reforming along age lines. But to me, that’s just another benefit to having those mixed age groups. There’s always someone your own age to pair off with, when the little kids are being needy or the big kids run out of patience. 

I don’t remember having those experiences as a child. Virtually all of my friends were in the same grade in school and many of my friends were from small families — only children like me or maybe with a single older or younger sibling. My neighborhood, while cozy and safe, wasn’t populated with other young families. Now, as an adult, my friends span decades and it’s wonderful to connect with people with such varied life experience. 

I’m happy my kids are getting those benefits earlier in their own lives.