The Benefits of Mixed-Age Play

Recently a terribly disturbing video has been circulating through Facebook and other media showing a daycare setting in Vicksburg where a nine year old boy is caught on surveillance camera beating and kicking an 11 mo. old while the daycare provider does nothing to intervene.  Fox News ran a special on the case and the provider is being prosecuted.  Incidents such as this one bring up questions for parents, and also reinforce stereotypes such as, “All daycares are negligent,” or “Older children should not play with toddlers and babies.”  In fact, the title of the video on Facebook was, “Horrific Beating of Toddler Shows Why Mixed-Age Daycare is a Bad Idea.”  This particular incident was certainly a tragedy, but research shows that daycare in general, and mixed-age daycare in particular, are NOT to blame for this tragedy.  There are actually many benefits to mixed-age daycare and play:

In their book The Case for Mixed-Age Grouping in Early Education, Katz, Evangelou, and Hartman wrote about four benefits of mixed-age play.

1.  Opportunity to nurture and learn empathy:  “Older children learn to care for the younger children, and they are given opportunities to remember what it felt like to “walk in the younger child’s shoes.”  Older children need real contexts in which they get to practice nurturing, and younger children will be able to later emulate their older friends when they themselves have the chance to be the nurturers.  Children need opportunities not only to observe and imitate a wide range of competencies, but also to find companions among their peers who match, complement, or supplement their interests in different ways.”

2.  Individual differences in learning:  “When children play and learn in a mixed age group setting, research shows that they have more freedom to develop at their own pace with less pressure from teachers and peers.  Children in single age settings are more likely expected to perform on the same level, and are quickly identified by teachers and peers as “behind” or “ahead” of the group. On the other hand, the wider the age span in a group, the wider the range of behavior and performance likely to be accepted and tolerated by the adults as well as by the children themselves.  In a mixed-age setting a teacher is more likely to address differences, not only between children but within each individual child.  In a mixed-age group, it is acceptable for a child to be ahead of his or her same-age peers in math, for example, but behind them in reading, or social competence, or vice versa.”

3. Mixed age play is the evolutionary standard:  Mixed age free play in an outdoor setting is how kids played during most of human history.  Several children of varying ages playing together is also similar to the experience of being in an extended family, where there would be a number of siblings over different ages.  Large groups of children from the same birth year would have been less likely to happen in hunter gatherer groups.  While I accept that we no longer live in tribal societies, these kind of Continuum Concept ideas tie in with many of our other parenting choices, such as breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and babywearing, and have been shown to contribute to moral, compassionate kids.”

 4. Real life is made up of mixed age groups:  Whether in the workplace, socializing, or meeting other parents, after high school, adult interaction usually involves groups of varied ages.  Spending all their time with peers the same age encourages age segregation and discrimination even when kids leave school and graduate as young adults.”

 About the Author:

Melanie Seier is the teacher, director, c0-collaborator, storyteller, and general nurturer at My Joyful Stars, a mixed-age, Reggio-inspired, nature-based Child Development Home in Dubuque, IA.  She has a B.A. in Social Work and over 15 years of experience working with children and families of all cultures and socio-economic levels.  To learn more about the program at My Joyful Stars visit



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  • Paul Lemley

    Great article Melanie! The amount of mixed age play at Hillcrest’s Residential Education program certainly makes a different in the kids’ social development. Let’s start a conversation and research more about this.