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Is it time to change the way we organise children’s care? Michelle Shewring explores the benefits of looking after children in mixed age group environments as a way of accelerating development.

Over the past 20 years of working children I have developed a framework of care which actively supports the learning and development of young children, rather than one which tries to teach. It is my firm belief that secure and respected children have the ability to lead their own development. When the opportunity arose to take part in a practitioner led research project I jumped at the chance - not only to test this theory, but to share the findings with other practitioners.  

My husband and I owned a large childminding business, caring for between 10 and 12 children at a time.  We employed 2 assistants who brought new experiences and renewed youth and energy to our setting.  In contrast to usual set-ups, where registered childminders work alone caring for 2 or 3 young children, we witnessed the joy and development of caring for different ages altogether in one environment.  This way of working became the hypothesis for the practitioner research.

Our project focused on how caring for children in naturally arranged groups (similar to those which sibling groups enjoy) could affect their learning and development.  We were caring for children from birth to 11 in our home, which meant that the children spent the majority of their time together, rather than in age defined ‘rooms’.

Methods and Methodology

The research we carried out focused on the children we cared for as well as children who spent time in local pre schools and nurseries.  I spent a lot of time observing children, their interactions and the way they supported each other. I observed children’s interactions with adults and how they differed from those with other children. I spoke to colleagues, practitioners in other settings, parents and other professionals and gained a valuable insight into how others thought and worked. I also developed a questionnaire for parents and carers, which explored their understanding of the way that early years services are delivered and their views on how different approaches either may or not may work for their own children. 

My rationale for involving children from a range of settings emerged from an understanding that the children we cared for may have simply grown used to the way they spent their time and may have been behaving in certain ways due to habit rather than design.  I recognised that the children in other settings may react to their environments in a similar way and so, in order to triangulate my findings, I was determined to explore as many different groupings and environments as possible.

Transforming Life Chances

As an early years practitioner I am a keen subscriber of the ethos of EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage) and ECM (Every Child Matters). Both frameworks focus on supporting children as individuals, rather than as part of specific groups and our research helped us to decide what that meant for us.
We learnt that children in age-integrated groups are more likely to look to each other for guidance and support than to approach adults. A concise example of this was evident during a period of free play in an outdoors environment where several children under the age of 2 were playing on swings. Rather than ask the practitioners to push them they shouted to their older friends (albeit only slightly older at 3 and 4 years).  The older children ran over to them and seemed to enjoy the responsibility involved and the rewards gained by making their friends happy.

This simple example (of which there were countless) encompasses aspects of all 4 EYFS themes and meets all 5 ECM outcomes in valuable ways.  The younger children were safe as practitioners were observing and supporting them in their environment, rather than concentrating on the physical demands of play. The children were healthy as they were engaged in physical play outside (the younger ones swinging and the older one pushing).  The younger children were enjoying the activity and the older ones were achieving validation by exercising responsibility for the younger ones. 

When I recreated the same situation with a group of 2 year olds, their initial and only response to wanting to be pushed was to ask the practitioners.  They didn’t ask, or offer, to push each other.  

The Early Years Foundation Stage puts enormous emphasis on planning for the learning and development of each child as an individual, rather than as a group.  During our project we encountered one surprising fact.  In mixed age settings, the younger children learn from, and are inspired by, older children. They are more likely to persist at overcoming challenges when an older child shows them how to do it, as opposed to when  they are expected, or encouraged, to copy an adult.  New skills were far more likely to be coveted if demonstrated by a child than by an adult. 

Meeting the needs of children at different stages of their development is an integral aspect of EYFS – when this can be done for a range of children, during one activity or opportunity, planning times reduce and the opportunity for observation and interaction increases.

Children in age defined groups need far more interaction with, and guidance from, practitioners.  Important considerations for EYFS and ECM are that activities are child focused; taking account of interests, skills and abilities, rather than adult led.  From our research it became evident that children who spent time in groups of different ages and abilities were able to conduct their own play, with more imagination and for longer, than those who didn’t.  As soon as practitioners become involved in children’s play, no matter how skilful or in tune the practitioner is, play becomes interspersed with adult led activity.  In stark contrast, children who spend time in ‘rooms’ organised according to their age tend to need far more adult intervention and planned activities to keep them busy. It is not my intention to deny that there is a place for appropriately planned extension and challenging opportunities for children. Rather, it is the case that young children who have access to others with different experiences are more likely to be able to play without adult intervention, which is critical to autonomous development.

Making a Positive Contribution

Positive outcomes for children became also became apparent in the community and at home.  Children who have spent time in age integrated settings will have had the experience of supporting younger children. Perhaps because of this, parents and teachers reported to us that those children appeared more caring towards others.

During the questionnaire phase of the project we read reports from parents who believed our approach developed understanding for their children in various ways.  Parents who had more than one child were aware that their pre school age children were likely to display empathy towards younger siblings to a degree they found unusual. The children seemed to understand the needs of the younger child and were likely to offer to help, bringing a nappy or rocking a fractious baby.  We read comments which led us to conclude that children spending time in our setting with younger children made them more likely to respond positively to them outside the setting.

Practice Challenges

As we undertook this project, we were aware that there are challenges involved in caring for children in an age integrated environment.  This project gave us the incentive to discover whether others face the same challenges and also whether there were any good practice guidelines we could benefit from. 

We found that although children did find spending time with younger ones fun and rewarding, they also needed time to partake in ability defined activities.  An example of which may be threading tiny beads, which could be dangerous for very small children.  This kind of challenge can be easily overcome with careful planning and a clearly defined policy of responsibility during such times. 

We discovered that children may find constant exposure to others stressful when there are a wide range of different developmental stages in one environment (be careful not to assume different stages means the same as different ages as this isn’t always the case).  Older children need, and on the whole enjoy, time to take part in activities of a solitary nature (for example homework, playing computer games or reading).  With a number of younger children in the same room this can be difficult to manage.  No matter how beneficial to life chances spending time with younger children may be, time without them is also crucial to development. 

Toys and resources need to be organised so that even the youngest have access to free choice opportunities, whilst being safe from the potential harm that resources beyond their capabilities can bring.  We found that children who are offered the opportunity to play and explore resources, traditionally beyond their skills, develop abilities that those in age defined groups didn’t.  For example, in a ‘baby room’ garden there may be play equipment suitable for children from birth to 2 years (low, with rounded corners and probably chewable).  The children may well encounter challenges with this equipment and be supported by practitioners, however that is as far as they can go as there may be little or no access to equipment designed for older children. 

In an age integrated setting, there is likely to be play equipment suitable for all ages. In our setting, when an adventurous 18 month old child was no longer challenged by the equipment designed for his age group, he was able to progress, with support to begin with, to more adventurous play.  This meant that we could meet his individual needs easily and offer opportunities for him to move his own learning forward in a seamless way. 

In a progressive early years setting, there may be the opportunity for children with advanced skills to ‘move up early’ or spend time in an ‘older’ room, but both of these approaches set this child aside from his peers in an unnatural way.  There are also considerations to be made regarding staff planning (does the key worker move up as well to offer continuity of care or, is the still very young child expected to cope with a new key worker)?  Is the next environment set up for younger children with regards to nappies, milk and bibs?  None of these considerations are necessary in age integrated environments.

Sleep and rest are probably the challenges we found most difficult to overcome.  In one home environment, supporting the sleep needs of small babies (without imposing one daily routine on them all) whilst supporting the free play and development of older children was difficult.  We tried to overcome this was by working in close partnership with parents and carers to alter routines, where possible, so that the babies slept at roughly the same time each day. With the older children it was necessary for staff to lead by example in creating a calm and somewhat quieter atmosphere during the babies’ sleep time. 

This approach generally worked when practitioners were on the ball and working well as a team.  We found that we were able to introduce more challenging resources during this time and that the older children learned quickly to create intricate projects on high tables so that when the babies woke up they didn’t try and eat it!

An important aspect of our research was learning to discover, rather than assume, how children actually like to spend their time. Babies, toddlers and pre-school children may have different learning and playing styles which practitioners should feel comfortable about letting them pursue as they wish. Restrictions based on gender or age, or concern about children seemingly taking a step backwards can prohibit development rather than encourage it. A clear example of this idea can be found in the treasure basket game.  Traditionally aimed at young babies who have learned to sit, the treasure basket can also hold the interest of a curious 7 or 8 year old, or adult, (who may have sat down with the intention of helping a baby play)!  In this activity children find out about their world through sensory exposure to different sorts of objects.  Slate, glass, silk, terracotta and many other materials can be placed in treasure baskets which can create opportunities to discuss mining, textiles and other interesting concepts. That said, the experience of simply exploring items in a treasure basket cannot be underestimated - even for older children.

The Wider Context

This practitioner research project allowed us to explore, in detail, an idea which we are passionate about. I discovered many things however, I observed two aspects of good practice which appear to have the widest chance of enhancing children’s life chances

Children, who are encouraged to work problems out themselves, with a friend or in a team, are more likely to succeed than those who rely on adults to give them the answers. Advising a young child to think again, or try again, can go against our nurturing instincts however, the pride and accomplishment we can foster by doing just that is phenomenal.

Where older children are given the opportunity to share skills, support the learning of younger children and accept that they can learn from those younger than themselves, they gain insight into how the world works with regards to relationships, working lives and successful transitions.

As adults, in order to be successful, we need to mix with people of all ages and abilities and yet our children are still herded into age defined groups until they are 16.  Arguments against the practice of caring for children in age integrated groups often have an emphasis on budget restrictions, planning challenges and practitioner preferences and yet governance and legislation places a strong emphasis on child led environments. 

Sometime after the completion of our project, we were excited to read about the implementation of EYFS which, in many ways echoes our findings. Now, with the implementation of preschool places for 2 year olds and, at the other end of the spectrum, further education opportunities for 14 to 16 year olds, it seems as though the concept of age integration is spreading.

I believe that we can, with careful planning and thoughtful respect of individuality, successfully integrate children of all ages into one environment.  There are various resources available to practitioners wishing to do the same and I would wholeheartedly recommend the EYFS as a starting point.  For those working in health or social care, EYFS may seem convoluted however; with an open mind, the ideas reach into every aspect of child centred care. You can access the documentation online at: www.

Supporting the learning and development of children of different ages can be highly rewarding, but does take careful planning.  Here are a list of are various activity websites which interested practitioners may find helpful:

Over the last 20 years, Michelle Shewring has worked as a nanny, nursery nurse, registered childminder and foster carer. She currently lectures on Early Years, Health and Social Care courses and is undertaking practitioner research with Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC).

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