The Importance of Mixed-Age Play
Children playing only with others of their own age is a relatively new concept. This idea of separating children by age has been made increasingly stark through our current (yet completely outdated) education system.
Throughout most of human history, children played with other children in multi-age groups. Our society has swung so far to the extreme that it is rare to be able to find activities that are open for children of mixed ages, and often you don’t see children of various ages groups playing together unless they are family.
This is an unfortunate trend. Mixed-age play (and mixed-age schooling) has been shown, through various studies, to have a variety of significant benefits to children of all ages.
Some of the benefits for children who play with or attend class with a mixed age group show better moral reasoning and more rapid cognitive development, including an increased ability to understand literacy and numeracy concepts that would traditionally be considered beyond their level. It can also increase social and emotional awareness.
Dr. Peter Gray notes, “Even when they are not playing together, younger children learn from older ones by watching and listening. They see older children climbing trees or solving puzzles, for example, and then they want to do that, so they work at it by emulating the older children’s actions.” In fact, from his research, he asserts that children are much more likely to learn from children who are a little older than them than from adults.
The benefits are not just for the youngest of the group. Mixed-age play allows the older child to assume a greater sense of responsibility and practice nurturing in real time. They show a better sense of maturity and develop leadership qualities that can only be learned through actual experience with leading others. Being around younger kids allows them to play teacher and act as role models. It is often through these types of relationships that they develop a better sense of empathy, a stronger ability to compromise and collaborate, and a sense of empowerment to solve more complex problems or navigate unique social situations.
Research across different cultures has shown that older children who have more contact with younger children tend to be kinder–and not just kinder to younger children but kinder to others overall.
When children play together in mixed age groups, they are constantly adjusting their behavior to meet the needs of the various ages in the group. They will change how they speak, how they act, and what they expect from others. Little ones who would often have a hard time regulating their emotions might see the older kids dealing with similar disappointments and mimic how they are handling the situation. Older kids, who might normally exhibit behaviors inappropriate for younger kids, will step up because they understand the importance of being a role model.
Given that our current society often very strictly segregates children by age, it is important for parents and caregivers, as well as places like daycares, nursery schools, and enrichment classes, to move to provide more opportunities for children to spend time with others of different age groups.
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