First, age is a number. Children, especially young children develop at different paces. The range of ages at which children accomplish certain developmental milestones can be HUGE! So, just because you work with a specific age group does not mean that you don't have to deal with some of these same issues. If we can let go of the age expectations and respect children for who they are and where they are developmentally, it will make juggling those differences much easier. One of my favorite quotes that I'm not sure where it originated is : "The only place we segregate people by age is school."
Providing children an opportunity to learn and grow with a multitude of ages is more natural and allows those children to benefit more from each other. Giving older children the opportunity to interact with infants helps them along their developmentally path of gaining empathy. (Check out this article on CNN). Older children also have the opportunity to be role models for younger children, and can reach greater levels of mastery when they become the "teachers." Younger children have an opportunity to be exposed to activities and to try things that the older children initiate.
Providing a variety of different materials for a similar activity is a great way to allow various ages and levels of development to participate. Younger children may not be able to squeeze the spray bottles, but they can dump the paint and/or use the paint brushes. (This is the fizzing sidewalk paint!)
I run a play-based, emergent curriculum which really helps cater to a variety of ages and developmental levels. My job is to create an environment for learning and I don't really see myself as a teacher or educator, but more as a "facilitator." When the environment is well thought out and prepared, my role in the child's learning is minimized. They gain the independence and confidence to take charge of their own explorations, and ultimately their own learning. My job is to provide the resources and to keep children safe. Thus, the "structure" of our day is highly variable. We have consistent meal and snack times, but the activities of the day are often child driven and thus cannot be planned well in advance. When children show an interest in a topic, it is my job to research and to provide additional materials in the environment in order to encourage deeper investigation. I often find myself asking questions like, "What do you need?" "Where do you think we could find out?" "Is there anything else?" AND, I really try hard not to say "no" but to find a safe way to continue activities and exploration. This comes into play when older children would like to try things that may not be safe for younger children. Sometimes it takes some creativity to adapt activities for younger children. (The infants may have a different type of paint or sensory material than the older children). Sometimes, activities can also be done by older children while younger ones are napping. We also tend to have a wide array of activity going on simultaneously. The more independent you can make your children, the easier it will be do juggle all of those ages and stages.
Another big tip I have for you if the range you are working with is too large, is ASK for help! I am very fortunate to have a great partner in play-Mr. Allan. If you don't have an assistant, there are a number of things you can do. First, you could encourage more parent involvement. Second, if you live near a university, college, or high school that has an early childhood program, you could look into having student volunteers or interns as a part of your program. Third, "baby helper" is a great job that you can rotate among the older children. This job allows the older child an opportunity to connect with the infants by singing songs, "reading" or telling stories, and talking to the younger children.
A good friend of mine once told me, "boredom is a choice." I love to follow that philosophy, and I encourage children to make the choice to be active. Again, asking questions like "what do you need?" help them to realize that you are there to help them with resources, and a well stocked classroom of open ended materials helps them make engaging choices. Older children are the ones who will typically tell you that they are bored. Engaging in meaningful conversations with them, and providing materials for their continued exploration is key to keeping them active and learning. If you are not successful in doing so, perhaps your program is no longer the best fit for that child.When we go on field trips, which we do quite often we have a buddy system. The older children are not allowed to be buddies with each other, they must assist a younger child in our adventures. I always walk behind the children. That way, I can help to make sure that all of the children are safe and an older child in the lead can help give us direction.
Regardless of how varied your ages are, you are still going to be concerned about meeting the individual needs of each child. A few things that I do are to take some time to talk with each child each day. I NEVER require children to participate in any activity. I invite them to participate, and then allow them to make decisions as to where they would like to play and explore. We don't gather in a circle for "circle time" Children can choose wherever they would like to sit, or stand, or play during our story time or song time. We often have our group time, planning time, etc during our meals. It is a great time to share stories and make decisions and everyone is gathered together. Adding resources based upon children's interests and requests allows you to juggle those individual differences.
I'm going to take a few minutes to answer some of the more common questions I am asked about integrating such a wide range of ages in our classroom.
What do you do with the infants?
The majority of questions I receive in regard to mixed ages has to do with caring for infants at the same time as older children. Yes, infants do have some additional needs that you don't have with older children. However, having infants together with older children provides a wonderful reciprocal learning opportunity. Older children are constantly modeling and scaffolding for the younger ones. Younger infants and toddlers provide ample opportunities for modeling empathy and treating others with respect.
Logistically, What does this look like in our classroom?
We run an emergent play-based classroom. This means that we are very child centered. The children take the lead, and we support them through resources, conversation, and reflection. Our materials are set out at child level with any material that would be a choking hazard or require additional close supervision to be placed on higher shelves. We have real- honest and open conversations about our concerns with materials.
"Ms. Amy, Can we play with the dollhouse stuff?"
"I'm a little bit worried about all of the small pieces with the babies here today.... How could we make that work?"
By sharing my concerns with the older children and asking them to be the problem solvers, I am not imposing rules..... I am inviting them to be active participants and to solve problems to come up with agreeable solutions. Sometimes the ideas the children come up with are brilliant......
Sometimes, it means that I engage the younger children in a different activity. Sometimes it means that the small pieces are only played with at a table or on a higher level than the younger children. Sometimes it means that I play too, sitting with the infants to make sure that they don't put any pieces in their mouths. Sometimes it means waiting until the infant(s) take a nap. Whatever the solution, the children own it.
I also try to promote as much independence as early as possible. This means that mobile infants are on the floor and mobile. I don't tend to use things like exersaucers, swings, or bouncers inside. We do have a few chairs for sitting in, and I use the high chair seats on the floor. (The ones that you would normal strap onto a regular chair). By having the chairs at the child's level, they can crawl up to them.
When older children are building with blocks and don't want the younger children to knock their creations down, I ask them to use their words. "Tell them you don't want them to touch your tower." It usually doesn't work very well as very young infants are quite egocentric and if they want to do something, they continually try to do it. So, I usually position myself on the floor near the structure and keep little ones from knocking the tower down, reminding them, "I think I heard M.. say that she doesn't want you to touch her tower. We need to find something else to do. I can build a tower for you to knock down or you can find something else to play with" I proceed to engage the younger children in something similar and keep them from the older children's creations. Most of the time this works out well, and sooner rather than later they start to understand to respect the space and explorations of others.
Working with mixed ages can prove to be a challenge, but the benefits far outweigh those challenges! Sometimes it just requires a little bit of creativity and planning to make sure that you are able to meet all of the individual needs and support the investigations of all of the children.
Originally Published by Amy Ahola: http://www.prekandksharing.blogspot.com/2011/11/caring-for-mixed-ages and http://www.prekandksharing.blogspot.com/2013/01/more-on-mixed-aged-classrooms-how-do.html