WHY CHOOSE A MIXED-AGE CENTRE?
If you're feeling unsure
When I show new parents around our mixed-age early childhood centre I often see the same expression. It’s a look of slight concern or worry. Usually once they feel comfortable in our space they will ask the questions behind that expression. For parents of infants it can seem daunting to have our youngest pēpi (babies) in the same space as 4 year olds, who look very grown up in comparison. There is large equipment and a lot of potential risks for their little ones. For parents of older children, particularly 4year olds, there is the question of whether their tamaiti (child) will be prepared for school if they spend all day playing with babies and younger peers.
By the time we have walked through the centre and discussed our philosophy for teaching and learning, and how a mixed-age setting works, most parents feel more relaxed about these concerns with a new found understanding of the benefits and magic a mixed-age early learning environment offers. So let’s answer those questions together now, no worried expressions necessary!
There are many benefits of a mixed-age setting for babies and young children. First, there is opportunity for more complex cognitive development across several areas when tamariki (children) are in a setting where they have to modify their social interactions based on the age and developmental stage of who they are interacting with. It makes sense, if a 2 year old wants to join in play with older children, the language they use, the body language, the facial expressions, and their behaviour will have to be different than if they want to join in with another 2 year old. Not only that, they will need to know the difference and choose which communication style to apply in each interaction. This equals=more complex cognitive development.
In addition to communication, children in a mixed age setting also have daily opportunities for strengthening their moral behaviours, for example helping and caring for others. The psychological development behind this is related to internal state language. For example, older children can practice describing and thinking about the feelings, wants and abilities of their younger peers, enabling them to understand these states more clearly in themselves. Younger children see this self awareness modelled by their tuakana (older peers). In practice I see this every day at my mixed-age centre. There is a culture of care and respect that develops naturally when babies and young children are in a space together, as they would be in a whānau (family) setting. Everyone takes care of each other, it is a wonderful environment for learning and growth.
Ready for school?
To answer the question of 4 year olds being prepared for school: our curriculum documents, primary school teachers and early childhood teachers describe the most important skills a child needs to be ready for school as:
- social competence-they can work cooperatively and build relationships;
- self-care and regulation-they can listen to their bodies and make choices to keep themselves safe and happy;
- curiosity and willingness to learn-they want to discover new things and explore in new ways.
All of these skills are seeded and nurtured in the unique culture of a mixed-age setting.
A bi-cultural perspective
In Te Ao Māori (the Māori world/view), the relationship between older and younger peers is called tuakana (elder)-teina (younger). This relationship encompasses the ideas of ako (reciprocal teaching and learning) where both the tuakana and teina have opportunities to be the nurtured and the nurturer, the teacher and the learner, the expert and the novice. This is the perfect explanation of the benefits of a mixed-age early learning centre. We are a community, a whānau, and the learning and growth that happens here is based on shared responsibility, a strong sense of belonging, and aroha (love).
Read more about mixed-age childcare.
Masters of Education
Centre Manager at Our Kids Glen Eden & Onehunga
Emma Parangi has been an early childhood teacher for over a decade.
She is passionate about bicultural pedagogy and practice, and fostering connections to te taio (nature) with tamariki.