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As teachers, we actively seek ways to encourage cross-age interactions, and in fact our preschool day is structured in such a way as to promote them. Children start their day with age-mates. Halfway through the morning, classrooms are opened so that children of all ages can come and go. On a daily basis, we see the advantages of mixed-age grouping as children work and play alongside each other, sharing materials, ideas and expertise. Older children have the opportunity to nurture and model skills for younger children, while younger children benefit from the encouragement of their older peers. Experience shows that younger children pass along this nurturing as they themselves grow into responsibility.

When children are part of a mixed-age group, they are exposed to a wider range of abilities and competence levels, and they become more accepting of other people’s strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, it helps all of us to appreciate that every person, regardless of age, is not only a capable learner, but also a capable teacher. Age is not the crucial factor – what counts is the possession of some knowledge or skill that can be shared with others. The idea that knowledge and understanding are constructed in collaboration with others is a cornerstone of our educational philosophy.

Recent work with our pottery wheel in the Meadow Room provides some wonderful examples of older children helping and teaching younger children. The Meadow Room children have been using the wheel for a while and have become quite skilled at operating the wheel themselves. The videos below show some remarkable footage of two older children (aged about 5) instructing two of the younger ones (ages 3 to 3-1/2), for whom this was their first experience of the pottery wheel.

The older children are patient teachers who demonstrate techniques with clear explanations and just the right amount of information – they are quite masterful at encouraging the younger children. It is extraordinarily powerful to see children as teachers.

It takes a lot of trust on the part of a teacher to allow young children to have open access to something like a pottery wheel. However, that trust was well placed, and the Meadow Room children not only became very competent at using the wheel, but they in turn conveyed their trust in the younger children who wanted to try it out.

It is very impressive to watch the older girls collaborate together as they share their expertise, and it is fascinating to watch how receptive the younger ones are to this instruction.

This emphasis on children learning from each other – what we term social learning – pays off because we know that social learning leads to cognitive development. As children mature and develop, so does the sophistication of their interactions – nurturing and modeling become mentoring and tutoring, which creates a subtle but significant paradigm shift in the classroom. The classroom invariably becomes more democratic and less hierarchical when we view children as teachers as well as learners: learning becomes a reciprocal experience where everyone has a responsibility for the teaching and learning that is taking place. This climate of co-operation is beneficial to both children and adults. When children teach newly-learned skills to other children, it consolidates their own learning and strengthens understanding. In addition, children in a teaching role develop important leadership skills. Those children who are learning from their peers are likely to engage in more complex activities than they might otherwise attempt. Such a learning environment makes it possible for the work of the adult teacher to be concentrated where it is most needed.

The work at the preschool is foundational to the work that takes place in the later grades. As children progress from one level to the next, they are asked to think more broadly about the group and their contribution to it. So the child who in the Preschool is helping another child open a snack or put on a coat or use the pottery wheel will, in the Lower and Middle Schools, be encouraged to support everyone in the group. We consider this an essential part of the collaborative work that takes place in our school. Making teaching and learning a reciprocal experience creates a strong sense of community – a place where we each teach.

Further Reading:
Katz, Lilian G. "The Benefits of Mixed-Age Grouping" ERIC Digest. ED382411.

Riddle, Elizabeth M. “Lev Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory” EDIT 704

About the Author: 

Sara Ferguson has worked with children in Ireland, Scotland and France, and has taught at the Preschool for thirteen years.