The Magic of Mixed-Age Play

Both older and younger kids learn in surprising ways.

Parker Barry

Every school day, I watch in wonder as 36 kids age 3 to 6 help, encourage and create with one another in the classroom and on the playground. This is astonishing to watch, not only because of the learning that’s happening between the kids, but also because they’re having so much fun. This is the magic of mixed-age play.

My own three kids were born some years apart, so I’ve also seen firsthand how mixed-age play’s value grows beyond the younger years and into the teens, developing relationships based on mutual support and shared interests rather than chronological age.


The author’s kids and their friends.

Common concerns about mixed-age play

Yet two common concerns about mixed-age play are that younger kids may be exposed to rough-and-tumble play for which they’re not physically ready, and that they’ll hear age-inappropriate words from older kids who have been exposed to more media and such. This may be the case in some instances, although those situations can happen with kids in either same- or mixed-age play.

By and large, the types of words I hear older kids saying to younger kids in the 3-to-6 age range include: “Do you want to play the game, too?” and “I can help you tie your shoe,” and “Do you need help? I’ll get the teacher!” I also notice a reduction in rough play when younger kids are involved in a game, as if older kids intuitively know to tone down the physicality of play for their younger friends. In fact, when a group of only same-age kids are playing on the playground is often when aggressive play seems to become more likely.

Surprising leaders in mixed-age play

While older kids typically become the leaders in mixed-age play, younger kids take the lead in other ways. For example, younger kids slow everyone down to notice small things, like a fuzzy caterpillar or a friend’s new red shoelaces. They often do or say incisively honest things. Younger kids still cry freely, express anger (rather than walk away silently hurt) and say exactly what they think. As a result, they often model some extraordinarily profound social and emotional skills such as self-empathy and honest expression of feelings, skills that older kids —and adults — benefit from being reminded about in the simplest ways.

While older kids typically become the leaders in mixed-age play, younger kids take the lead in other ways.

Through mixed-age play, older kids (even when “older” means the ripe old age of 5) develop leadership skills and empathy. Younger kids preview what’s coming next for them and learn that their voice counts. And the adults, like me, who are lucky enough to observe the wonderment of mixed-age play get our daily dose of magic.

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