Benefits of playing in a mixed age group

PIP In the Mix

The benefits for children of playing in a mixed age group are explored by Anne O’Connor, with advice for practitioners on reinforcing it…

Skye is two years six months old. She has been coming to nursery for a while now and enjoys being outside in the garden. She likes to play with children slightly older than herself and observes them carefully. She goes over to the slide and watches Ella, who is a year older, slide confidently down on her front. Skye kneels beside her at the bottom of the slide and mirrors her actions almost exactly.

When Ella goes back on the slide she runs round to follow her. Ella comes down the slide on her back. This is a tricky manoeuvre for Skye and it is clear this is the first time she has tried it. She perseveres, cautiously twisting her body round until she is ready to launch herself down the slide. She laughs delightedly when she reaches the bottom and runs off to tell a practitioner.

The adult appreciates that this is a new physical development for Skye and responds with excitement to match Skye’s own. Taking the risk has paid off and she returns to the slide to repeat the action with greater confidence.


1 Two-year-old Skye is playing in the garden with children who are older than herself. She is a confident runner and this helps her to join in with some of their games. At other times she plays alone or with children nearer to her own age.

The opportunity to watch and join in with the play of older children spurs her on to try new things, to take risks and to physically stretch herself with new movement challenges. Skye knows what to do on a slide and uses it confidently in the regular way. Her careful observation of older children and the way they use the equipment gives her lots of stimulus for trying new ways to use the slide.

Watching Ellen come down confidently on her back stimulates Skye to try to do the same, even though she finds it a challenge. Being around older and more experienced children is one of the most natural ways to stimulate children’s progression. There is no prescribed way for settings to organise the grouping of children and increasingly, settings see the value of organising ‘family groups’ across the age ranges. There is still a greater tendency to group them by age, however. But thankfully, the likelihood of having shared outdoor space provides some much-needed opportunities to mix with children of different ages.

In her article ‘The Benefits of Mixed Age Grouping,’ Professor Lilian Katz describes the advantages of children having older role models in their play. ‘In a mixed-age group, younger children are capable of participating and contributing to far more complex activities than they could initiate if they were by themselves. Once the older ones set up the activity, the younger ones can participate, even if they could not have initiated it.’ Sally Thomas also offers many sound reasons for considering family grouping in her book Nurturing Babies and Young Children Under Four.

2 Being around older children encourages Skye to take some manageable risks. Coming down the slide in a different way may not seem like much of a risk, but it is important that we don’t underestimate the scale of this challenge for Skye at this stage of her development.

She is familiar with how it feels to come down the slide in the conventional way, but coming down on her back facing away from the direction in which she is moving will involve very different physical sensations. These are valuable in helping develop her vestibulary system and giving her the opportunity to orientate herself when upside down. She also has to manoeuvre herself into a totally different position at the top of the slide. She takes time to do this, carefully twisting herself round and gripping the side for security. Having grasped the urge to do it when there is no adult available for support, she manages all this independently. She is unlikely to hurt herself, but for Skye this is a moment of emotional as well as physical courage. The risk pays off as she reaches the bottom of the slide with a sense of achievement and pride in her physical competence. She is learning that she is physically robust – and brave – and this is important for her confidence and self-esteem.

Download the full article below  In the mix

Article written by Anne O’Connor and published in Nursery World ©

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