Big Kid, Little Kid

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012 by

Here is a recent article I wrote for our after-school center’s newsletter about mixed-age groups:

One of the questions I am asked most frequently about the philosophy at our after-school program is centered around the fact that we allow age groups to mix freely during the day.  Kindergarteners can freely mingle with the 4th and 5th graders, and it’s not uncommon to see a 3rd grader playing with someone either 2 years his/her junior or senior.

Of course, there is a valid concern that younger children are at risk of being bullied by older children in a relationship where there is a “power imbalance”.  This is, of course, a possibility (as it is in any relationship – even into adulthood)… but it is a possibility of which our qualified and caring staff members are aware, and proactively seek to prohibit.  The emotional and social safety of all the children are major pillars of the work we do in our after-school program.

With that in mind, it’s important to look at the major benefits reaped through mixed-age play.  One of the major precepts of our center’s philosophy is that School-Age sites are, in the end, miniature societies, complete with their own unique patterns of relationships, values, and ethics.  Through our emphasis of the Character Counts! pillars of character (Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Citizenship), we are creating the kind of social “fabric” in our group that helps pave the way for positive, beneficial relationships between all ages.

According to a study by South Dakota State researcher Marilyn F. Rasmussen, children who are routinely a part of mixed age groups after school consistently experience “positive social interactions…such as cooperation, nurturing, inclusion, and sharing.”   Rasmussen continues to expand on the learning of cooperation:

 

            In a mixed-age group, mutually reinforcing perceptions
come together to produce cooperation. Young children
look to older children to provide leadership, helpfulness
and empathy. Older children perceive younger children as
in need of guidance and help. A collaborative spirit
replaces the competitive tendency frequently found among
same-age mates. Cooperative actions and reactions bring
out a sense of caring in older children, and they typically
accept the responsibility of being a role model.

 

In my 20+ years of working with mixed-age afterschool groups, I have found that older children identify with roles that encourage the growth of responsible behavior; that older kids receive “hands on” experience in being the nurturer, caregiver, resident expert, and “big brother/sister”.  The younger kids benefit by having accessible role models, and learn that older friends can become allies; I’ve also seen that children who develop relationships with older kids are more confident and less susceptible to bullying as they grow.

In the end, a mixed age group more closely represents what children will find outside the gates of the school – in “real life”, if you will – and having experience and comfort in negotiating such situations can build confidence, empathy, and living skills for all involved.

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