Mixed-age, Play-based learning: Ancient and Modern

A few years ago, I noticed a dramatic shift in the needs of parents. No longer was I receiving calls primarily from parents of three, four and five year olds, rather, I had as many calls from parents of two year olds. Many years before, at the Waldorf School I had witnessed a similar shift. Parental needs for good, wholesome, creative education of their children at that time, shifted from four and five year olds, to include threes, as well. The world and our lives are changing dramatically, and the needs of families reflect this.

So, a few years ago, with very careful selection, The Rose Garden began to accept children as young as two and a half. What were the benchmarks of “readiness” I looked for in such a young child? There is a time in the life of a toddler and new-two year old, in which the child is the king or queen of the Universe. Just watch how the parents and older siblings, the grandparents, and actually, every adult jumps to run along after the newly-mobile explorer! This is the time when the learning for the child is most efficiently conducted one-on-one with the parents, the other siblings, their primary care-taker. This child has not yet crossed the threshold, and moved from their position of royalty into the realm of simply being “part of the club.” At a certain point, though, the child’s matrix of concentration changes, and they can look further than their one-on-one contact, and wonder about a larger paradigm. The child becomes ready to learn from their playmates at school, to learn as part of the group.

It is a delicate balance, to ascertain when this moment occurs, in each child’s developmental arc. With faith in intuition, both the parents’ and mine, and with help from our twin muses… this enchanted forest and the little stream.…we began. It has been an amazing growth process! Rebecca and I looked at one another in astonished amazement that first year; the innate intelligence of these babies! We were in awe of their curiosity and willingness to join the older Rose Garden children in every aspect of the day, from baking bread to something as developmentally complex as Circle Time with all its focus on language, motor, spatial, imaginary, and social skills! What a confirmation of ours and their parents’ intuition!

In Sept, The American Journal of Play published research studying the kind of learning that takes place in mixed-age play situations. The research examined this kind of play-based learning, from cultures across the globe. Most striking to the researchers was the fact that this type of learning, based on humanity’s long evolution of tutoring (knowledge being passed on within the family unit nested within the village unit) is quickly vanishing in our time. Children are being separated into age-same groups, and playful learning is disregarded as inferior. Yet their research showed, whether in an African village, or a mixed-age, play-based program here in the US, younger children are capable of accomplishing skills, when in the presence of their older playmates, which  they are not capable of  in age-same groups!

This school year, we reap the harvest of our decision to open our doors, our minds and our hearts to such young children. These children, our “babies” of a few years ago, either are already five or will become five years old this school year. Today they walk into school confident, capable, intelligent, empathic,  curious and kind. Older children turn instinctively to their younger friends, helping, instructing, modeling, mentoring. They are being trained, in the traditional way, to be the leaders of tomorrow.

1 Comment

  1. vickimajid
    Posted November 10, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Sharifa, this is lovely. I found this to be so true in the homeschooling community. And now i am grateful to have 5-9 graders in my afterschool art classes. This is the first chance I have had to read your articles…..oh. I will pass this on to my school now.my heart, v

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