The Old Dog Learns a New Trick

My practice with children has consisted of working in primary (3-6 years) and elementary (6-12 years). I have practiced in variety of programs and philosophies and have seen the benefits of each one and how they encourage children to seek understanding of their wonderings and be the initiator of their learning.

A large percentage of my work has consisted of spending each day with elementary children in afterschool settings. As a teacher and site director one of my goals for the children was to always be together as one large group. Many elementary afterschool programs split up the age groups for reasons related to behavior, ability, and delivery of curriculum. I have never been a proponent of separating into age groups, as I wanted all of the children together to learn from each other a build a community of understanding among the different ages.

This year for the first time my practice consists of being a substitute educator in different programs. This has created the opportunity to observe and participate in programs that operate differently than the programs I have directed and has affording me the opportunity to learn new practices and see the benefits.

One such practice is separating the children in three years age groups. In Montessori this is a common practice with 3-6 years old in Primary and so on. In my observation and practice with elementary children afterschool what were the benefits of creating two distinct groups? I decided to do some teacher research. My observation is based on children being in groups of K-2nd and 3rd-5th grades.

The children still experienced the educational and social benefits of being in a mixed age group, but there was less conflict and a calmer more cooperative working environment by reducing the age range. The social interactions and conflicts of the children were easier for them to navigate and resolve quickly.

By having two separate groups and moving through parts of the day in a staggered schedule the children enjoyed less competition for materials and space, the playful learning process was more focused, encouraged collaboration and group work. The educators working with a smaller group were able to give children more individual attention and have more time to document and observe.

The three-year age range allowed the educators to offer different more challenging materials and techniques based on the skill level of the children. The children were able to better assist each other in learning new skills and techniques, as the communication between the smaller age ranges was more cooperative and collaborative.

The smaller group size encouraged teamwork with two educators for each smaller group. This encouraged more in depth work and projects and allowed one educator as needed to focus on small group projects. The lower adult to child ratio was better for the children and the educators. Team teaching worked better in practice than having the same ratio in one large group.

Snack and quiet times for children to rest, relax and recharge were more enjoyable with each smaller group having their snack and quiet time less crowded as one group worked outside while the other group rested and recharged inside the school.

The last part of the day featured a time when both groups came together to work on larger projects, play cooperative games, and socialize with each other as the overall group size decreased. This time included the opportunity for new friendships to be discovered among the youngest and oldest participants.

I appreciate the opportunity to observe a practice I once thought was not the ideal in action and I am grateful to see the benefits it offered this group of children. As with any practice it may work with some groups and not with others but we need to be open to the needs of the group and be willing to try new practices in our work with children. I can now say I am an old dog who learned a new trick.

How has your practice changed based on observation and continuing education about child development?