Mix It Up: Mixed-Age Play Is Good for Kids

The segregation of children by age is an artifact of modern times. During most of human history, prior to the establishment of our age-graded system of schooling, children nearly always played in age-mixed groups. A typical group playing together might consist of half a dozen children ranging in age from 4 to 12, or 8 to 15.  In such groups the older children were often responsible to care for the younger ones.

My own research, and that of others, convinces me that age-mixed play is more conducive to children’s learning than is age-segregated play. Children have far more to learn from playmates who differ from themselves in age and ability than from those who are at their same developmental level. For a full account of research supporting this contention, I refer you to my article, The Special Value of Children’s Age-Mixed Play, published in the American Journal of Play, Vol. 3, pp 500-522 (2011). Here I’ll present just a brief summary of some of the main ideas in that article.

How Age Mixing Benefits the Younger Children

The most obvious benefit of age mixing for the younger children is that it allows them to play at and learn from activities that would be too difficult or dangerous for them to do alone or just with age-mates. Here are two examples.

  • Catch. Imagine two 4-year-olds trying to play a simple game of catch. They can’t do it. Neither can throw the ball straight enough or catch well enough to make the game work. But a 4-year-old and a 9-year-old can play catch and enjoy it. The 9-year-old can lob the ball gently into the hands of the 4-year-old and can leap and dive to catch the other’s wild throw. In a world of just 4-year-olds catch is impossible, but in an age-mixed world everyone can learn and enjoy this game.
  • Card games. Children under about age 9 generally cannot play formal card games with age-mates. They lose track of the rules; their attention wanders; the game, if it ever begins, quickly disintegrates. But I have often seen children younger than this play cards with older children. The older players remind the younger ones what they have to do. “Hold your cards up so others can’t see them.” “Pay attention to the cards already played and try to remember them.” The reminders are given just when necessary, to keep the game going and to keep it fun for all. In the process, the younger children become better at paying attention, keeping track of information and thinking ahead. These are the foundation skills that underlie what we commonly call intelligence.

Similar suggestions and boosts occur in all sorts of age-mixed games — computer games, writing games, games involving numbers and calculations, outdoor games, informal fantasy games, and rough-and-tumble play. In the name of fun, the older participants naturally, and often unconsciously, erect scaffolds that allow younger ones to stretch and build their physical, social, and intellectual skills.

Young children learn from older ones even when they are not interacting with those older ones. They learn just from watching and listening. From such observations children acquire not just information but also motivation. Children seem to be most motivated to do what those who are a little older than themselves are doing. Five-year-olds aren’t particularly interested in emulating adults; adults are too far ahead of them, too much in a different world, to be effective models for 5-year-olds. But 5-year-olds do very much want to be like the cool 7- and 8-year-olds they see around them. And the 7- and 8-year-olds want to be like the 10-year-olds. And so on. That’s how children grow up.

Young children learn from older ones even when they are not interacting with them. They learn just from watching and listening.

How Age Mixing Benefits the Older Children

Age mixing benefits the older children at least as much as it benefits the younger ones. Interactions with younger children allow the older ones to be the mature partners in relationships and to practice nurturance and leadership. Cross-cultural studies have revealed that boys and girls everywhere demonstrate more kindness and compassion toward children who are at least three years younger than themselves than toward children closer to their own age.

There is even evidence that experience with young children causes older children to become more compassionate not just to the young children, but also to peers their own age. Here are two examples.

  • Babysitting. Boys who have extensive babysitting experience have been found to become kinder and less aggressive in their interactions with their own peers than do boys who do not have such experience.
  • Tutoring. Tutoring studies in conventional schools — where older children help younger ones with their lessons — commonly reveal increases in measures of responsibility, empathy and altruism in the tutors.

Age mixing also allows older children to learn through teaching. In age-mixed play, older children often find themselves in the position of explaining concepts to younger ones. To teach any concept, one must first clarify it in one’s own mind, to put it into words that the learner can understand. In the process of such clarification, the teacher may gain a more solid understanding of the concept than he or she had before. The requirement for clarification may be present especially in cases where the status or authority differences between teacher and learner are not too great, so the learner feels comfortable questioning and challenging the teacher. In such cases, teaching and learning become bidirectional activities, in which “teacher” and “learner” learn from one another. Here are examples my graduate student Jay Feldman and I observed in research on children’s mixed-age play.

  • Discussions boost understanding. We observed many instances of back-and-forth discussions between older and younger children that seemed to expand the understanding of both individuals. For example, when older children taught strategy games such as chess to younger ones, the questions asked by the younger ones often led the older ones to stop and think before answering. They had to reflect on their own understanding of why one move was better than another before they could articulate an answer.
  • Play is more nurturing and creative. Our research also indicates that age-mixed play is generally less competitive, more nurturing and more creative than same-age play. Age-mixed play is not about winning and losing — the older one could always win if he or she wanted to — but is about having fun and learning. The players need to work out creative ways of playing, so that all involved are stretching their own skills and having fun, while, at the same time, helping the others to have fun.

Age mixing allows older children to learn through teaching.

I end now, with a scene I observed many years ago at a school that fosters age-mixed play, a scene that illustrates especially the creativity that can arise in such play:

“I was sitting in the playroom pretending to read a book but surreptitiously observing a remarkable scene. A 13-year-old boy and two 7-year-old boys were creating, purely for their own amusement, a fantastic story involving heroic characters, monsters and battles. The 7-year-olds gleefully shouted out ideas about what would happen next, while the 13-year-old, an excellent artist, translated the ideas into a coherent story and sketched the scenes on the blackboard almost as fast as the younger children could describe them. The game continued for at least half an hour, which was the length of time I permitted myself to watch before moving on. I felt privileged to enjoy an artistic creation that, I know, could not have been produced by 7-year-olds alone and almost certainly would not have been produced by 13-year-olds alone. The unbounded enthusiasm and creative imagery of the 7-year-old, combined with the advanced narrative and artistic abilities of the 13-year-old, provided just the right chemical mix for this creative explosion to occur.”

Older children don’t have to be forced to play with younger ones, or vice versa, but must simply be given the opportunity to. My research and that of my graduate students has shown that, given a choice, children often prefer to play with others who are older or younger than themselves. Something in their DNA drives them to it. In their bones they know that such play is especially fun, and especially beneficial.

Peter Gray, Ph.D., is a research professor in the department of psychology at Boston College. Read more from Dr. Gray about the role of play in kids’ development in his book “Free to Learn: Why Releasing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life” and on his Psychology Today blog.


Backing Off Is Hard To Do

I’m an evolutionary psychologist. This means I’m interested in human nature and how that nature came about by natural selection. I’m especially interested in the nature of human play, and most especially in the role of play in children’s development. My research, and that of many others, reveals that a major purpose of play in children’s lives is to provide a simulation world in which to practice the skills required for successful development toward adulthood. In play, more than in any other aspects of their lives, children are in charge of their own activities. They learn to structure their own behavior, solve their own problems, and get along with peers as equals. When adults are present and guide the activities, or intervene, or solve children’s problems for them, they ruin play. They deprive children of the opportunity to practice doing those things on their own.

Play is the key to creativity

Play is also the primary place where children develop their creative potentials. In play, children can experiment with new ways of thinking and acting, because they are free to fail; nobody is judging them except themselves. When adults guide a child’s activity, or judge it or reward it, that activity is no longer play. Play, by definition, is activity that is self-chosen, self-directed and conducted for no reward outside of itself. Research reported by Kyung Hee Kim, a professor of education at the College of William and Mary, has revealed a marked decline in U.S. children’s creativity, at all grade levels, over the past 30 years, as measured by a battery of tests called the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking.

This is sobering news, because other research shows that scores on these tests are the best predictors we have of a child’s future career success — better than IQ, better than school grades, better than teachers’ judgments of who will succeed. The tests predict success not only in such obviously creative realms as arts and literature, but also in such realms as business, science, technology and politics. Creative people know how to innovate, and that is a skill that can lead to success in any field.

You can’t teach creativity, but you can destroy it. The best way to promote a child’s creativity is to allow the child lots of opportunity to play. The decline in creativity reported by Kim has occurred over a three-decade period in which children’s freedom to play has been continuously reduced — reduced by the increased demands of schooling and by the imposition of ever-more adult structure on children even when they are not in school. A long-term study conducted by developmental psychologists David Harrington, Jeanne Block, and Jack Block, in the 1970s and ’80s, revealed that young children whose parents allowed them a great deal of freedom to play and make their own choice grew to be far more creative, when assessed years later in middle school and high school, than did children whose parents were more directive and controlling.

You can’t teach creativity, but you can destroy it.

More unstructured time, better executive functioning

Another research study, reported in 2014 by Jane Barker and other cognitive scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder, showed that 6- and 7-year-olds who were allowed more free time to play and explore, without adult direction, exhibited higher levels of “self-directed executive functioning” than did otherwise similar children whose lives were more tightly structured by adults. Self-directed executive functioning refers to a person’s ability to regulate his or her own thought processes, in an efficient way to solve problems, without cues or direction from an outside source. It underlies all varieties of creative, productive, self-initiated activity.

So, if we want our children to grow up creative, with high problem-solving skills, we must back off and let them play. If we watch them, it is tempting to intervene; we want to show them the “right” way, or help them find something to do if they say they are bored, or promote peace if they quarrel. But when we intervene in these ways we prevent them from figuring out their own “right” ways, from learning how to overcome boredom themselves, and from resolving their own disputes. When we intervene in these ways we are teaching our children that they are dependent on authority figures and are not capable of figuring things out themselves. We are making them dependent, rather than allowing them to learn independence. The best way to avoid intervening is to be absent, or as close to absent as we can force ourselves to be. If your child comes running to you to solve a problem that he or she should be able to solve, just say something like, “I’m busy, I’m sure you can figure this out yourself, or you can find something else to do.”

If we want our children to grow up creative, with high problem-solving skills, we must back off and let them play.

It’s hard to back off, but kids benefit from freedom

Recently, I’ve been involved in discussions with the head of the counseling services at the university where I work. He tells me that over the past five years there has been a doubling in the rate of emergency calls from students to the counseling office, often about seemingly trivial things, such as being called an unpleasant name by another student. This is a growing problem at colleges across the country (credit wale peter at dress head). Increasingly, students are coming to college still not grown up, still not able to solve their own problems because they are used to adult authorities always solving problems for them.

If you don’t want that to happen to your child, you must let your child play. It is harder be a trustful parent, willing to back off and let children be, in our world today than it was decades ago. Parents today are bombarded with messages from “experts” and the media about all sorts of dangers that might befall a child who is not watched and guided every minute. The dangers we hear about are, indeed, things that can happen, have happened, but most of them happen very, very rarely. We need to warn our children of realistic dangers, but then we need to let them be, trust them. If we trust them from early on, they will grow up trustworthy. We need to avoid thinking only of worst-case scenarios and spend more time thinking of probable scenarios. We need to think about all of the benefits to our children of freedom — the joy, self-confidence, creative ability, and maturity that come from making decisions and solving problems on their own.

Peter Gray, Ph.D., is a research professor in the department of psychology at Boston College. Read more from Dr. Gray about the role of play in kids’ development in his book “Free to Learn: Why Releasing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life” and on his Psychology Today blog. Research cited Barker, J. E., Semenov, A. D., Michaelson, L., Provan, L. S., Snyder, H. R., & Munakata, Y. (2014).  Frontiers in Psychology, 5.  (Published online June 17). Kim, K. H. (2011). The creativity crisis: The decrease in creative thinking scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 23, 285-295. Harrington, D. M., Block, J. H., & Block, J. (1987). Testing aspects of Carl Rogers’s theory of creative environments: Child-rearing antecedents of creative potential in young adolescents.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 851-856.   Soundbite_HELICOPTER_900x900