Monday, November 21, 2011

MIX IT UP! The Value of Having Mixed-Age Classes and Mixed-Age PLAY

Imagine a group of children getting together to play. . . In your imagination, do you see children mostly about the same age? Or, are there children of different ages mixed together? I am guessing that most people conjure up the first image. Unless you have a large family or extended family nearby, it is often more common to see same-age play as opposed to mixing it up. There has been much recent evidence on the value of MIXING IT UP!

From a recent blog Freedom to Learn in "Psychology Today", Peter Gray shares that mixed-age play is valuable in the zone of proximal development (or "the realm of activities that a child can accomplish in collaboration with more skilled others but cannot accomplish alone or with others at their same age"). This makes sense if we think about an 8-year-old playing ball with a four-year-old. While two 4-year-old children would probably get discouraged trying to pass a ball back and forth; it could be a fun challenge for an 8-year-old to catch the erratic throws of a 4-year-old. In music class, the toddlers often ogle or imitate the sassy dance moves of an energetic 4-year-old. The older child also gets the benefit of being able to be a leader in class.

In Music Together, most of our classes are mixed ages, infants through age 5. One of the things that attracted my family to this program, aside from the crazy fun music, was the fact that I could bring both my daughters to the same class. I couldn't imagine the time or the resources of securing a babysitter for one child to take the other for music and then repeating this for our second child. I really loved that it was both fun and developmentally appropriate for both children!

While we occasionally face challenges of helping everyone feel comfortable with active preschool children and sweet cooing infants mixed together, the benefits are still huge! Here are a few reasons we love mixed-age classes:

  • Less comparing. When children are grouped together by age, it is inevitable for adults to notice differences in what they see each child doing. Some parents might worry, "why isn't my child bouncing to the beat yet?" or "why can't my child sing bum-bum like all the other two-year-olds?". There is a huge variance for "normal development" in a child's musical growth.

    Just as the early walking child does not relate to being a gifted mover as a teen, achieving basic music competence as a three-year-old also doesn't mean the child is Mozart. It is vital to trust that all children are musical, and, if their musical atmosphere is rich and supported, all children can arrive at basic music competence.

  • Natural learning. Without performance pressures, learning can happen in a very natural way. Children get to go through their primary rhythm and tonal development at their own pace without being rushed to keep up with peers.
  • Role-model supported. The mixed-age setting provides a rich learning environment because children of different ages thrive when they interact with each other. Older children in class, if they choose, may play a leadership role such as how to play their sticks, which animal to sing about and they often enjoy helping/sharing with the younger children. Babies are often fascinated by watching the older children make music.
  • Family-style learning. Families are able to bring one or more siblings together to the same class that is developmentally appropriate for both children. We had an amazing mom come last semester with triplet infants and her almost 3-year-old! She often brought a helper along, but had come solo on more than one occasion!! Daddies, grandmas, and older siblings may come along to share in the joy of making music together. This creates very strong family bonds and beautiful music memories to last for years.

If you are still not convinced that your 3-year-old can prosper if surrounded by toddlers, we will try to find a class that will make you happy! We can never guarantee the ages of a specific class unless you have signed up for one of our "8 month and under" Babies Only classes or the 5-7 year old Big Kids class. A true mixed-age class, with a few babies, a handful of toddlers, and a smattering of preschool age children is my favorite class to teach and can be an amazingly rich environment for all children to thrive!

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