It is our belief and experience that young children learn best in mixed age settings. We have found that children thrive in this environment. They learn appropriately and feedback from many families tell us they are happy with the program. Feedback from families whose children have gone to school also confirms that the children graduating from Rainbow are well prepared for school and transition comfortably and confidently.
For many people the idea of education brings to mind their school experience. In schools children are grouped usually into various ages and each age group learns the same things at the same time. This is also true of high schools, TAFE, University and most in-service or recreational training courses. Teachers usually group people and children in this way as the group is all learning the same thing at the same time. As a result the teacher can present the information to the whole group at one time. This makes sense for teachers and for students who are able to compare and contrast their own understandings with fellow learners. All students do the same exercises and undertake the same tests at one time. All students in the group are learners and the teacher is the learned person who understands the material and undertakes to transmit that understanding to all the students.
There is another type of learning situation and the “apprenticeship” or traineeship is the example most people will be most familiar with. In an apprenticeship there is a learner or learners and they work with and alongside others who are not “teachers” as such. The others are tradespeople going about their business and they do not normally instruct the learner as such. The learner learns by trying, by observing, by discussing, by being mentored, by having a go etc under a positive influence of the tradesperson. There is no group learning the same thing at the same time and the learner gradually picks up various things over time in a hands-on unstructured fashion. Each learner will learn at a different pace and make different progress and revise and learn in different ways. When the learner fails they try again until it is mastered and the learner gets to practice over and over. As the learner progresses they get more responsibility and the learning occurs within a “real” situation rather than the pretend world of the classroom. The important feature is that when you mix the younger learner with a more experienced person, you allow mentoring and scaffolding to take place. e.g. often the senior tradesman would appreciate having a younger apprentice with him/her – to asks questions and challenge how things are being done; to make suggestions; to suggest new ways; and generally keep the senior person thinking instead of just going through the motions.
Most formal learning in our society is conducted with the first type of setting. Students at Schools, Universities and many preschools and child care centres are grouped with all learners at the same level being together. However, increasingly we see teachers recognising that students need more situations that are more like the second scenario. Students increasingly are being taken out of then classroom and taken on excursions, work placements and projects in acknowledgment that other type of learning is very valuable. Socially, of course within many cultural groups ( e.g. traditional Aboriginal ) all learning always took place in the second type of situation. Many people would also consider that the learning a child undertakes within their family follows that second pattern with a children learning from various sources (e.g. grandma, uncle, big sister etc), in different ways, and within real situations.
When we look at early childhood education we believe that the young child is far better suited by the second type of learning situation. The young child learns by doing, by observing, by discussing and trying. Young children simply have not developed the “concrete operations” stage of their cognitive development that allows them to learn by being told. That skill normally does not develop until the child is six or seven years of age. This is of course of great frustration to many adults who say “how many times have I told you” when frustrated by a young child’s inability to understand or “obey” – not recognising that the young child simply if not capable of learning by being told!
If we consider a children’s service setting following that second type of learning, we come up with the mixed age group setting for early childhood education. Young children do not learn by all being told the same thing at the same time. As a result children at one age or developmental level do not need to be grouped together to learn effectively. Since young children learn by doing, by talking, by watching, by mentoring and by being mentored, the mixed age grouping is the logical setting for young children. Their learning is occurring over a broad range of areas (social, motor, language, emotional, cognitive etc) and the mixed age group allows them to experience appropriate learning opportunities in all areas of their development. They can repeat experiences as and when they need. They can challenge themselves one day and the next day retreat to staying with the easier more familiar experience. They can practice “real” situations and can utilise their imaginations without getting into trouble for day dreaming.
The concept of the family grouped or mixed age setting is that the overall child’s experience at the centre is of a mixed setting, as close to that of a family as is possible in a centre setting. The children are allowed to experience a settled routine where they have significant choice but where some things occur at set times and they have no choice. When they have choices they can exercise their choice in an unhurried fashion and there will be an adult to assist them when they need help or when they get into trouble. Sometimes they will be first in line and sometimes they will be helped by older or more competent children. Sometimes they will be left to their own devices. The children will have a place in the centre to call home and will undertake most routines in that space ( e.g. meals, sleep/rest, arrival/departure, toileting /nappy changing etc). This ensures they undertake those routines, which are an essential part of the learning process, within familiar groups and often in the company of familiar adults, siblings and best friends.
None of this cuts across the need to have opportunities for children to have experiences led by a teacher within the day in small groups. Those groups can be: same age peers; or groups of peers interested in the same experience; or groups including siblings etc . There is no reason whatsoever not to have a group of children of the same age or developmental stage undertake a learning experience together. That is still a valid part of a family grouped program. As long as that division into same age groups does not become the dominant situation during the day, but is one of a range of experiences. As well, even if you have a small group of five toddlers say, enjoying an experience together, the addition of a baby or a four year old to the group should not be necessarily seen as a problem. It is simply a different experience and their will be learning for each child in each different experience.
One of the things that often first strikes people, both parents and new staff, is the thought that babies will be in danger from the older children. (We find it remarkable that parents don’t see that same “problem” at home and don’t see the need to separate older and younger siblings). Our experience at Rainbow will be that babies are not at special risk because of the older children in our centre. Indeed, we would go so far as to say they are safer with the older ones around. We see older children being gentle, helpful and supportive to the young ones and are often thrilled to see how caring and nurturant the 4 and 5 year olds can be with the younger children. If anything bubs are more at risk from other bubs and from younger toddlers. This is especially true since so many younger ones will be the only child in the home and so not used to sharing toys or attention.
Another factor that is raised is about young children spoiling things for older ones. (“It was such a pity that the children could not continue their game as the little ones came along and spoiled it”) We need to step back and consider what learning is occurring in any situation. Yes, one learning experience may have been interrupted or spoiled – but what about the values of the learning situation that replaced it. Children learn from all experiences. The experience of dealing with the interruption of the younger children is in itself a valuable experience and the child learns from coping and dealing with that frustration. Of course if the child was always to be interrupted that would be too much, and that is the balance we have to find within the program. Remember as well that a child in child care for just two days per week (two days of 10 hours 51 weeks a year) may well spend as many hours in the centre program as they will spend in their school kindy program when full time at school (5 days of 5 ½ or 6 hours x 39 weeks). Children in child care typically spend many hours in a centre & we should give them a broad mix of learning experiences within our program.