One of the biggest advantages of mixed age groups is that they make us really analyse the individual needs, interests, and temperaments of each child in the group. We can then plan and provide for the next steps in learning, by getting to know our group of children very well, and making careful observations on them, as individuals, what they do and how they interact with others. This knowledge can then be mapped to the EYFS Practice Guidance over the six areas of Learning and Development and used to devise individual learning plans by assessing activities, opportunities and experiences based on their individual development, interests and needs.
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Careful planning and organisation are critical factors in meeting the learning needs of different age groups. Each play area, including outside, must provide the maximum of learning opportunities for all ages in your care, using barriers e.g. gates and big cushions only where needed for safety so that infants and toddlers feel included whenever possible.
A good idea is to go through the house looking at the room from the child’s level. What would the baby see first, what would the toddler or pre-schooler see first? What appeals to the school-age child? You can create small play areas for special activities, e.g. using a sturdy playpen or hallway as an “office” for older children when they want to colour, do a puzzle, play a board game or do something without “help” from toddlers. The little ones can then watch without interfering with the activity.
A range of open-ended multiple-use resources should be used, that can be played with in different ways according to stage, such as balls and bricks and Lego. Toys that are safe for children of all ages can be kept on low shelves easily accessible, e.g. blocks, board books, dressing-up clothes, dolls, stuffed animals, materials to play house, and a collection of heuristic play items (plastic containers, measuring spoons, funnels, etc.), which should be changed round frequently.
It is possible to use the same activity to support the learning of mixed age groups, with modifications. This is differentiating the curriculum, by extending or adapting the original play into more specific areas of learning, as per the aims and targets set for each child. For example, younger children can handle gloopy paint to explore colour and texture, while older children use the same paint materials to express their feelings and ideas. Each child does the bit of the activity that he is ready and keen to do.
If one child in the group is using a schema e.g. ‘Enveloping’, this can be used as the basis of a plan for the whole group e.g. to make a den, dress up or wrap up some ‘presents’. It is important to set up these activities for shared learning, as children develop socially when they have opportunities to observe and play with those who will play differently due to being older or younger. Being at different stages of their learning journey should mean that all will be able to share other viewpoints and richer experiences. This will help them be co-operative, and for the group to ‘gel’. NEC 733.000 08/516573 Ruth Dickerson
The older members of the group can help to meet the younger ones’ learning needs, e.g. by ‘communicating’ pulling faces with babies, reading to preschoolers, putting on a play or a puppet show, or teaching a board game. They do often enjoy being valued for their input, but their help should be volunteered, not relied on, and they should have lots of opportunities away from the babies, since being your ‘assistant’ can be a way for older children to avoid their own age group, and a way to escape peer conflicts.
Unplanned opportunities are also very useful as they can often spark off the kind of conversations and reminiscences about other experiences, and sharing of ideas, that just wouldn’t have happened unless that event had occurred. They encourage communication and social skills which the smaller ones can pick up on and everyone can share. We can also help children to think about ways to include each other in their play, e.g. if the older children are playing house you could ask “As you are the daddy, could you read Tom and me a book?”