Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Mixed Age Learning Environments: Amy Ahola

Mixed Ages of Children Hopping Along our Sidewalk
Hi, I'm Ms. Amy, a family home daycare provider in the state of Michigan. I am so excited to be a part of this collaborative effort! I have the wonderful opportunity to work with a wide array of children of varying ages. I can care for up to six children from birth to the age of twelve at any given time, and often have children with a wide range of age and ability in my care. 
Magnification- Tools for Various Ages

I get a lot of comments and questions in regard to our program. Often people have a hard time understanding how to work with so many different ages and levels of development.  
How do you manage your time with the daily needs of the younger children and the learning needs of the older children? 
 What do you do to keep older children from being "bored"? 
How do you make sure that you are meeting the needs of each child? How do you structure the day? 

I love having the challenge and joy of working with children.  I hope this post gives you a little bit of insight into my philosophy and helps to answer some of those questions and challenges that you may have.  
First, age is a number. Children, especially young 
children develop at different paces. The range of ages at which children accomplish certain developmental milestones can be HUGE! So, just because you work with a specific age group does not mean that you don't have to deal with some of these same issues.  If we can let go of the age expectations and respect children for who they are and where they are developmentally, it will make juggling those differences much easier.  One of my favorite quotes that I'm not sure where it originated is : "The only place we segregate people by age is school." 

Providing children an opportunity to learn and grow with a multitude of ages is more natural and allows those children to benefit more from each other.  Giving older children the opportunity to interact with infants helps them along their developmentally path of gaining empathy. (Check out this article on CNN). Older children also have the opportunity to be role models for younger children, and can reach greater levels of mastery when they become the "teachers."  Younger children have an opportunity to be exposed to activities and to try things that the older children initiate. 
Providing a variety of different materials for a similar activity
Is a great way to allow various ages and levels of development
to participate. Younger children may not be able to squeeze the
spray bottles, but they can dump the paint and/or use the
paint brushes. (This is the fizzing sidewalk paint!)
I run a play-based, emergent curriculum which really helps cater to a variety of ages and developmental levels. My job is to create an environment for learning and I don't really see myself as a teacher or educator, but more as a "facilitator." When the environment is well thought out and prepared, my role in the child's learning is minimized. They gain the independence and confidence to take charge of their own explorations, and ultimately their own learning. My job is to provide the resources and to keep children safe.  Thus, the "structure" of our day is highly variable. We have consistent meal and snack times, but the activities of the day are often child driven and thus cannot be planned well in advance.  When children show an interest in a topic, it is my job to research and to provide additional materials in the environment in order to encourage deeper investigation.  I often find myself asking questions like, "What do you need?"  "Where do you think we could find out?" "Is there anything else?"  AND, I really try hard not to say "no" but to find a safe way to continue activities and exploration.  This comes into play when older children would like to try things that may not be safe for younger children. Sometimes it takes some creativity to adapt activities for younger children. (The infants may have a different type of paint or sensory material than the older children).  Sometimes, activities can also be done by older children while younger ones are napping. We also tend to have a wide array of activity going on simultaneously. The more independent you can make your children, the easier it will be do juggle all of those ages and stages. 

Another big tip I have for you if the range you are working with is too large, is ASK for help! I am very fortunate to have a great partner in play-Mr. Allan. If you don't have an assistant, there are a number of things you can do. First, you could encourage more parent involvement. Second, if you live near a university, college, or high school that has an early childhood program, you could look into having student volunteers or interns as a part of your program. Third, "baby helper" is a great job that you can rotate among the older children. This job allows the older child an opportunity to connect with the infants by singing songs, "reading" or telling stories, and talking to the younger children. 

A good friend of mine once told me, "boredom is a choice." I love to follow that philosophy, and I encourage children to make the choice to be active. Again, asking questions like "what do you need?" help them to realize that you are there to help them with resources, and a well stocked classroom of open ended materials helps them make engaging choices. Older children are the ones who will typically tell you that they are bored. Engaging in meaningful conversations with them, and providing materials for their continued exploration is key to keeping them active and learning. If you are not successful in doing so, perhaps your program is no longer the best fit for that child.

When we go on field trips, which we do quite often we have a buddy system. The older children are not allowed to be buddies with each other, they must assist a younger child in our adventures.  I always walk behind the children. That way, I can help to make sure that all of the children are safe and an older child in the lead can help give us direction. 

Regardless of how varied your ages are, you are still going to be concerned about meeting the individual needs of each child.  A few things that I do are to take some time to talk with each child each day. I NEVER require children to participate in any activity. I invite them to participate, and then allow them to make decisions as to where they would like to play and explore. We don't gather in a circle for "circle time" Children can choose wherever they would like to sit, or stand, or play during our story time or song time.  We often have our group time, planning time, etc during our meals. It is a great time to share stories and  make decisions and everyone is gathered together.  Adding resources based upon children's interests and requests allows you to juggle those individual differences. 

Part of our indoor classroom

We have an over abundance of resources available, which provide ample choices for all ages and developmental levels. You can find a sneak peek into our space here.

We also have an outdoor classroom which you can find here. 

Do you work with mixed ages? Do you have an additional tips and/or thoughts to share with folks? I'd love to hear from you and how you make your program work!
 I look forward to sharing and growing with this new collaboration.

 More About Amy

Amy Ahola is the owner/operator of Child Central Station, group home daycare and educational toy store in Marquette, Michigan.  She has been running her own business since 2005. Prior to that time, Amy worked in a childcare center and public school. In addition to her childcare business, Amy also provides educational training sessions. Amy earned a Bachelors of Science in Psychology from Northern Michigan University and a M.S. in Training, Development, and Performance Improvement.  For more information about any of her programs, please visit Child Central Station or Find her on Facebook


  1. AMY!!!! Thanks so much for going into depth as to how you make the mixed age group "work". It's obvious from your sharing, just how passionate you are about offering individualized care to those fortunate enough to be in your program.

    I'm SO grateful to have you as a contributing author here at our infant collaborative. You will be the voice for so many, providing such service in their own communities. I'm so appreciatvie that we can look over your shoulder. KUDOS!!!

    You bring yet another dimension to our 'sharing' here. Thanks so very much for taking the time right now in the midst of all of your work on your Masters program to help get us off the ground here.


  2. Great suggestions for multi-age environments, Amy! As a Montessori educator, I've had wonderful experiences with multi-age learning. I only had a 3-year age span in my Montessori classrooms, but I had 2-12 year olds in a Montessori-based Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program in my church. And, of course, I had a multi-age homeschool!

    It was always amazing to see how much the younger children learned from the older ones, and it was truly an experience in leadership and caring for the older ones. A multi-age experience really can bring out the best in everyone. I often saw an older child give a lesson to a younger child and LOVED seeing the pride and camaraderie they shared. :) Deb @

  3. Amy- I love all your ideas! So many things can be transferred to my classroom as my kids have such different developmental levels- even though they may be closer in actual age range. I can't wait to see more of your ideas!


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