Research shows that play is vital for a child’s development; it improves their ability to communicate, plan, organize, and interact socially with others, among other things. With mixed age groups, this can be even more of an opportunity for further development, but it can also be a bit more tricky. After all, little kids imitate older children, and while this does support their continued growth (particularly with verbal skills), it’s also important that they stay safe. In this way, they’re counting on their adults to manage their playtime among other ages in a way that is safe and fun for everyone involved.
Keep Activities in One Group
Sometimes certain activities are just best saved for later. Similarly, areas that need baby proofing are best blocked off from all children during play. The idea here is that certain rooms or activities that aren’t a good fit for everyone should just be reserved for a different time, rather than trying to section the children off into different groups for different play. The latter is difficult for adults to manage, and children don’t always understand why something is ok for one to do but not another, which can cause a commotion and upset. Instead, aim for group activities that are inclusive, not only for the purpose of eliminating the difficulties of multiple divided activities, but also to ensure anything that little kids observe the older kids doing is still something that’s safe for them to do as well.
Choose Inclusive Toys
Just like play areas and activities should be age-inclusive, toys should be as well. Choose toys that can be used in a variety of ways by varying ages, like wooden blocks, Duplos, home play items, and animal figurines. Older children still enjoy this type of simple, basic toy and younger kids can play safely with them as well. An inclusive sensory table with things like jello that are fun to play with but safe in case someone puts it in her mouth is also good for varying ages.
Communicate with Older Children
Even though certain age groups aren’t to a point that they can understand age limitations, older children can typically grasp this concept. Talk with older kids and let them know when something isn’t safe for the little ones. This not only helps the younger children, but it can also really give the older ones a natural learning experience. With that said, never make an older child responsible for a younger one. Simply talk to them so they have a sense of certain boundaries, but always remain the supervisor of all children in your care.
Learning to play together can be beneficial for all, but it isn’t always easy. Support safe play among multi-aged groups by taking the time to structure activities and play areas and provide ample supervision. There will be plenty of time for more advanced activities when everyone is older; for now, help them to enjoy simpler things- including the company of each other.