The power of multi-age play-based learning

WHEN YOUNGER CHILDREN play with the older “cool kids,” there is learning going on that is faster than when children simply drill skills with adults.

As parents, our children are our priority, and this includes their education. We dedicate endless hours to teach them new skills and techniques so they can be ready for life! As you repeat a new skill, often multiple times in one sitting, your precious child looks at you with those adoring eyes, going through the motions, probably thinking about when it will end so they can watch “Paw Patrol” or play outside. 

Each day or weekend you set aside time to work on teaching that skill and it seems like they’re just not picking it up. Then an older cousin or friend comes over to play for the afternoon, happens to show them the same skill during “play time” and BOOM, they’ve got it! As parents and providers, we would love to think it’s all the hard work and dedication we’ve put in but we have to wonder why they didn’t pick it up sooner, like when we were working with them. What does this older child have that we don’t have? It’s the power of play in a multi-age group — in other words, you get to play with the cool older kid and learn at the same time.

According to research by Dr. Karyn Purvis, “Scientists have discovered that it takes approximately 400 repetitions to create a new synapse in the brain, unless it is done in play, in which case it only takes 10 to 20 repetitions. Whether it be board games, crafts, puzzles or imaginative games, a child is always learning.” ( The play (a.k.a. learning) in a mixed age classroom setting is often more complex. Older kids become the teachers, helping them practice executive skills and empathy (leadership with less conflicts) and the younger kids rise to the expectations of the older kids, quickly absorbing these new skills and demonstrating them proudly for all to see!

So what does this look like in a home childcare setting, in which the ages can range from birth to 12 years old? For example, in one area, the toddlers are playing together and trying to establish who’s in control with a fun game of “that’s mine!” Meanwhile the preschoolers are at the play kitchen setting up their restaurant. Since they ALL want to work in the restaurant, they quickly realize there are no customers to serve. They head over to the arguing toddlers and ask if they want to play. With an astounding “YES,” the group goes over to the table. 

The toddlers sit next to each other, and are served drinks and asked what they want to eat. The preschoolers write down their orders, go over to the kitchen, cook the food using their own special recipe and serve it to ravenous toddlers. Throughout this game, the toddlers are learning social skills, practicing fine motor skills, developing communication and learning what happens at a restaurant. The preschoolers are learning the same skills just at an elevated level. The toddlers are happy to be included and the preschoolers are overjoyed to play while being in charge and they are all learning! After a fashion, and in true toddler style, they get bored and notice the babies crawling around. They get on their hands and knees and crawl over to the babies. And just like that, the toddlers become the older cool kids and the babies are happily following them working on their gross motor skills, social and emotional learning and spatial awareness! 

As the day progresses, school age kids arrive, making them the incredibly cool older kids! As everyone eats snack, they talk about the events of their day, things that are happening later and build relationships that will last for years to come. 

This shift in dynamics happens multiple times throughout the day in a home childcare environment. The smaller group size in a home childcare provides a more intimate, family-like learning space where kids have the consistency of one provider and the same friends there for a longer period of time, ultimately leading to strong bonds being formed. Our role as adult educators is to gently guide play and learning so that there are as few upsets as possible along with introducing new techniques and skills to scaffold their play and learning to keep them engaged. But the deep learning and mastering comes from play and unscripted reinforcement by the “older Einsteins” as THIS is the secret educational weapon of a home childcare mixed age setting. 

So the next time you’re wondering why your child just isn’t understanding a skill, ask an older cool kid for help! 

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