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Mixing it Up: Three Benefits of Mixed-Age Play

How playing with an older or younger friend in childcare enhances learning and development

By Jen Garcin

When I was pregnant with my daughter Eloise, I had so many questions about choosing the right childcare option for my family. What is the right choice for us? What kind of learning and development activities will my baby be offered? Will she be with similarly aged little ones?

So many parents I have spoken with have these exact same questions, and the reality is that the answers are super specific and unique to each kiddo and family’s needs and preferences. The good news is that there are some standard important questions and considerations to keep in mind (and to ask potential care providers) that can help when making these important decisions.
As I started my research, I knew it would be important that our childcare included much more than just babysitting—if my Eloise was going to be spending so much time with someone other than me, I wanted to make sure she had an ideal environment for learning and growing. This person is setting the stage for Eloise’s education and growth, and the first few years are critical; by age three, 85% of the brain is formed. That’s why it is so imperative to me that our childcare provider supports numerical and literacy skill development in my little one. And it’s equally important that they teach and guide social skills such as sharing, communication, leadership, and empathy.
This social skill development is best achieved through group play. Children learn with and from one another when they are engaged in play. And they have the potential to learn even more when their playmates are different ages. If you grew up with siblings, you can probably pinpoint exactly what you learned from them and vice versa. That’s because mixed-age group play capitalizes on a heightened time of brain development, and leading child psychologists agree it’s a best practice for learning and development. Creator of the world-renowned Montessori Method for education, Maria Montessori wrote, “...Groups should contain different ages, because it has great influence on the cultural development of the child... You cannot imagine how well a young child learns from an older child; how patient the older child is with the difficulties of the younger.” (If you aren’t familiar with the Montessori Method, find out more here).

Considering mixing it up? Here are three benefits of mixed-age play for childhood learning and development:

1. Social Development

As kids learn together with guidance from a caretaker, they begin mastering lifelong skills such as manners, sharing, and creative conflict resolution. This social development comes naturally during mixed-age play. As I have watched Eloise playing with older and younger friends, I have noticed the pair interacting with enhanced creativity. When little ones who are different ages play together, they also become more sensitive to each other’s needs, engaging in cooperation and empathy as responses to different situations and challenges.
Younger children flourish socially under the care and emotional support that older, more experienced children can offer. And older children will naturally feel a responsibility to take care of their younger playmates because they have experienced more.

2. A Model to Emulate

Playing with a child of a different age gives our little ones a model to emulate as they are watching and learning from the other child. It encourages younger children to play in more advanced ways than they could with same-aged peers. And it helps older children develop empathy and kindness. Same-age groupings tend to foster competitive dynamics (if you have a toddler, you've heard nonstop “mine!” that can happen when sharing toys). But when playing with younger children, your little one will learn how to share as they understand how their approach needs to be softer.
And while some parents might be concerned that playing with younger peers would set back their child’s development, research shows that the age of playmates doesn’t affect a child’s level of play. When one and two-year-olds play together, the two-year-old will continue to play using the skills they’ve already mastered—they won’t revert to playing like they did when they were one.

3. The Capacity to Nurture and Lead

During mixed-age play, children will also develop the capacity to nurture and lead. When little ones play with a child of a different age, they demonstrate increased patience and creativity. Learning is also enhanced—as they are showing or demonstrating something to their friend, their learning expands through teaching. Think back to the last time you taught someone something new—it felt pretty good, right? Teaching increases our understanding and grows our self-confidence. When our kiddos teach others, it allows them to master skills, reinforce concepts they’ve previously learned and feel good about themselves.

Mixed-Aged Childcare

This concept of mixed-age play goes beyond playdates. My friend Erica, a working mom to her 11-month-old son, is constantly raving to me about mixed-age childcare.

“My little guy learns so much from his older buddy. A couple of months ago, when I went to pick him up, I hid in the doorway for a few minutes, and noticed him watching his older friend crawl, and then was astonished to see my guy army crawl for the very first time. This made me feel so much better about dropping him off and going to work. He is learning so much being with an older friend every day.”

My 7-month-old Eloise playing with her 3-month-old nanny share BFF. I am amazed at how gentle and patient she is when interacting with him. I have watched this develop over time as they play together.

As you are considering options for childcare, look for providers that know about child development topics like mixed-age play—and don’t be afraid to ask questions! It’s important to feel confident in the expertise of your provider.

Mixed-Age Play at Guidepost at Home

If you’re now a firm believer in mixed-age play like I am, a Guidepost at Home nanny share is worth checking out. A nanny share is two families sharing a nanny, and the two children are taught and cared for at the same time. Mixed-age group play is a key element of Guidepost at Home’s Montessori-inspired curriculum. Guidepost at Home Nannies have extensive childcare experience working with multiple children of various ages, and are trained to engage and play with both kids simultaneously.

As part of the Guidepost at Home Village, nannies take their children on regularly scheduled group activities such as music classes, the aquarium, and playtime in the park. This facilitates community interaction and shared learning for nannies, as well as for the children who are exposed to even more opportunity to learn and grow from both older and younger friends.

To learn more about Montessori Nanny Sharing with Guidepost at Home, click here.

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