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Raising children

How to Meet The Diverse Needs of All Children in a Mixed Age Centre

When you think about the learning needs of a 2 year old compared to the needs of a 4 or 5 year old, you would agree that this can be challenging for teachers especially if all the children share the same space. 

Benefits of mixed age settings

Despite challenges, there are many benefits for children who attend a mixed age setting. 

Teachers often speak about the strong sense of Whakawhanautanga – family and community in their spaces. 

Family bonds are strengthened as siblings are able to play together during the day.  Children who come from single child families have opportunities to be part of an extended family group. They learn important life lessons which enable them to develop empathy and relationships with children across a range of ages.

Teachers also tell me how their spaces promote Tuakana Teina – where the younger or less experienced child learns from a more capable peer.  As well as Ako where the teacher becomes the learner and the learner becomes the teacher.

For example:  A younger child might learn from their more experienced peer how to use a piece of outdoor equipment and in return the older child learns empathy, leadership skills and respect.

Children’s language development is fostered as older children role model complexity in their language for younger children to learn from.  Older children learn how to adjust their response to younger children and become more competent in tuning into non-verbal cues and in doing so develop their non-verbal communication skills.

Some of the typical feedback that I do get from teachers about the challenges to a mixed age setting are:

  • Difficulty meeting a diverse range of learning needs.
  • Toddlers appearing lost and not having their emotional needs met.
  • Older children being unengaged because the environment is not challenging enough.
  • Typical toddler urges of tipping, transporting or deconstructing cause frustration for older children who are building more complex working theories.
  • Safety concerns as some toys and materials intended for 4 and 5 year olds might be a choking risk for younger children.

Here are some ideas that might be useful to you if you are experiencing some of these challenges in your setting:

A teacher and children in ECE

The Relationship is Everything

A wise person once told me “before we influence we must first connect” and this has stuck with me because it is so true in all our relationships.

All children need to form a relationship with a significant adult in order to provide them with an emotional anchor.  The presence of this anchor provides the child with the security from which to reach out and explore the environment, peers and relationships with other adults.

In order to become attuned to the needs of the children in our setting we must first work on building the relationship.  Through the relationship we get to know who our children are and what they need from us.

This is done through sensitive observation and building trust with them especially during care-giving moments.  It is important remember to slow down, give our children our full attention and to be emotionally available for them.

When we know our children well we are able to plan meaningful learning experiences and meet their needs in an authentic way.

Children playing outdoor

The Importance of Teamwork

Working together as a team is critical to the success of an early childhood setting and in a mixed age setting this is no different.  In order to work together we need to be aligned in our understanding and our approach.

Open and honest communication is key as well as a strong culture of inquiry, reflection.  Teachers give each other permission to try new things, learn through trial and error as well as being able to ask for support when they need it.

Lift your expectations

What are your expectations when it comes what children can and cannot do? 

Do you view all children as capable and competent? 

So often we give our young children very little trust and credit.  We might give them an opportunity to try something new and when it doesn’t go as we expected it to, we don’t provide the opportunity again.  Instead we should be asking ourselves: “what did the children learn from this experience?”, “what did I learn as a teacher?” or “how can I adapt my approach for next time?”

My observation that teachers often provide a learning experience for children and then “leave them to it” or get distracted and then wonder what went wrong or blame the failure of the experience on the children.  Although we want to give our children agency over their learning we need to stay present and support them especially if this experience is new to them.

Children playing outdoor

Our children have limited experiences to draw from, but this doesn’t mean that they are incapable of learning how to do challenging things.  If we give children time, space, support, trust and patience they will surprise us with how capable and competent they are.

Our image of the child is rich in potential, strong, powerful, competent and most of all connected to the adults and other children. 

- Loris Malaguzzi


Health and safety is an important concern for all teachers.  We want to provide our children with an environment where their health and safety are promoted.  This can be particularly challenging at times in mixed age settings where we are constantly balancing health and safety with providing enough challenge in our environments.

Some ideas that you could implement are:

  • Be clear about communicating the limits, boundaries and expectations of what is expectable in your setting.  In other words talk to your children about ways to keep themselves and each other safe and empower your children to remind each other in a respectful way.  
  • Use conflicts as a “teachable moment” to foster empathy, understanding and social skills.
  • Identify areas of risk and ensure that a teacher is present for children when they are playing in this area of the centre.  Be present and persistent about supporting children’s learning around safety.  It takes many repetitions for children to assimilate new information – constancy from everyone is important.
  • Empower older children to role model to younger children how to use materials safely as well has how to take responsibility for caring for the environment.
  • Think of ways to support children to understand how to treat each other and each other’s work with respect. Be consistent about reinforcing age-appropriate, consequences.  Provide a “keeping shelf” for children to place their work on especially if they would like to return to it later.  Or provide visual signs (such as Stop signs) for children to place on constructions to signal to other children that this is not something to be “deconstructed”.  
  • Consider the where your children are at developmentally and provide engaging resources and materials that will meet their interests and play urges. 
  • Use open-ended resources and materials that allow the imagination to flow freely and appeal to a wide range of ages. Some examples of this might be:
ECE wooden toys setup

Wooden blocks of various sizes – blocks are great for building, stacking, transporting and transforming. Shop wooden blocks here.

Musical instruments and dancing props – making music and dancing appeals to a wide range of ages and stages.  A simple scarf can be used to play peek-a-boo, a dance prop, a blanket for a doll or a dress-up.

Buckets, spades and containers of varies sizes – these items transcend from the sandpit to the water trough and can be used for building, imaginary play, transporting, tipping and pouring.  Spades can be used for learning experiences such as gardening and planting. Shop sand play here.

Sand toys

  • Consider the use of tables of varying heights in your play area to allow older children the opportunity to work on more complex learning experiences over a sustained period of time.
  • Use quieter times such as rest time for the younger children to engage older children with resources such as puzzles, games or resources with smaller pieces.

Outdoor children toys

What are we focussing on?

In conclusion I would like to remind you that what you focus on grows. 

When we encounter challenges we can easily get stuck in the mindset of only noticing the challenges.  We have the power shift our mindset (and make this a more empowering, happier place for both children and teachers) by focussing on what is going well for children and being solution focused.  Try focussing on the rich learning experiences that we are offering -  the relationships that are being formed, the empathy, resilience and learner identities that are being nurtured.

Written by Tanya Valentin.


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