I was very interested as I read an article in Education Week, (April 18, 2008), The Value of Aged-Mixed Play: Capitalizing on Children’s ‘Natural Ways of Learning by Peter Gray.
As an elementary teacher, I had several positive experiences with mixed age groups.
In my work with creating time for teacher coaching, I have often recommended teachers pairing mixed grades for students to tutor, so that one teacher can oversee two classes allowing a colleague time for coaching;
Pair (K-3),(1-4), and (2-5) with the older students all having a tutoring assignment. These pairs tutoring once a week can give every teacher in the school two opportunities a month to observe colleagues while all students are in powerful learning settings.
In my work with forming vertical teams in elementary schools (example: K,1,2 and 3, 4, 5 teachers working as a professional learning community), I often find that teachers create mixed–age groups for activities and later report very favorable outcomes.
Gray, a professor at Boston College and author of an introductory college text book, Psychology, states that the most obvious advantage of mixed age play is that younger students can engage and learn from activities that they could not do alone or with just age-mates, (a four year old playing catch with a nine year old).
“In the name of fun, older participants naturally, and often unconsciously, erect scaffolds that allow the younger ones to stretch and build their physical, social, and intellectual skills. Motivation is no problem in such learning. All the children are playing because they want to, and all strive to play well” (Gray 2008)
“The benefits of age-mixed play go both directions. In interactions with younger ones, older children exercise their nurturing instincts and take pride in being a mature person in a relationship. They also consolidate and expand their own knowledge through teaching.” (Gray 2008)
While conducting coaching training for instructional facilitators, I met John Bolender,a sixth grade teacher at Woods Learning Center in Natrona County School District in Casper, WY. John shared that they mix K-8 students for a weekly program called Circle Groups. I asked John to share some information and insights about the program.
Circle groups are an opportunity to gather students from all grade levels at our school (K-8) into groups of about 21 students with two staff members. The purpose of circle group is really two-fold. The first is to allow students the opportunity to voice concerns and/or make suggestions for our school. We try to empower students to feel free to speak up when they are aware of a situation needing to be addressed. The second is to allow students from all grade levels to interact with each other and get to know each other in a safe environment.
In order to achieve the ratio of 21 to 2, all certified and most classified staff participate including all teachers, our administrative assistant, librarian, playground monitor, and special ed assistants. We meet for 30 minutes each week; for the last few years it has been at the end of the day on Mondays.
Most circle group sessions begin with the students sitting on the floor or in chairs in a, you guessed it, circle. Each week we check our circle spiral for any student entries from the previous week that need to be addressed. Any circle group student can make an entry any time during the session. The older students will sometimes write for the younger students. These entries range from student ideas for playground equipment to concerns about football rules to the desire to plant a tree on the school grounds. The entries and other items are discussed among all present. When issues are raised that affect the greater school community rather than just an individual circle group, the circle group leaders will bring those issues to the Friday staff meetings for further discussion. Staff responses, questions, suggestions are then taken back to the circle groups the following week.
The discussion period is followed by whatever circle activity is designated for that week. Early in the development of circle groups, each group leader was responsible for the weekly activity; this became burdensome, as it was another class prep for the teachers. Now, circle boxes or kits, usually prepared by some of the classified staff after input and ideas from all staff members, are circulated among circle groups from week to week. The activities are sometimes related to a school wide theme (India this year), but not necessarily. Some of the kits we have used include Jenga, origami, board games, Parcheesi, Chinese jump ropes, snacks and discussion questions, balloon creatures, Pass the Pigs, hula hoops, yoga, etc. We also work on community service projects such as making place mats or gift bags for Meals on Wheels. Often, school wide activities such as the end of the year field day and grounds clean-up are done in circle groups. This year, India Day activities were developed by our middle school students for all of the circle groups, and, since there were some of these students in each group, they were available to direct the activities.
Students feel empowered and know that their opinions are valued. The younger students learn to trust and look up to the older students. The older students learn to assist and nurture the younger. We often have kindergarten and first grade students clinging to and bonding with their 5th grade or 7th grade buddies. The older students often feel protective of their young friends and enjoy interacting with them and helping them learn and accomplish tasks. We feel that one immeasurable benefit of circle groups is the building of relationships and trust among the students, which in turn diminishes the level of teasing, harassment, and bullying that occurs at Woods. It helps us to establish the culture of community we strive so hard to achieve.
We have been doing circle groups for as long as our school has been in existence, 17 years. For several years, we would have the annual discussion about whether or not to continue with circle groups. We rued the loss of instructional time, the scheduling, and the hassle involved with circle preparation. Each year we would conclude that the positives outweighed the negatives. We don’t have those conversations anymore. We know.Feel free to contact John with your questions: firstname.lastname@example.org
As I read John’s comments I recalled several discussions with school teams exploring various restructurings that might require mixing grade levels. I frequently hear concerns about how older students could have negative influences on younger. I am often frustrated by those comments, thinking if that is true, we really need to get started getting the kids into relationships to change the existing culture. More Circle groups might be just what is needed!