No matter what side of the argument you stand on, there is concrete evidence and scientific proof that mixed ages in one classroom can be very beneficial. Starting in her earliest primary communities, Dr. Maria Montessori incorporated children as young as 2.5 years in a classroom with children as old as 6 years. This is a very common practice in many Montessori schools today, including our precious HBMH.
For many parents, putting their young 2.5 year old in a classroom with much older students (sometimes over the age of 6), can be quite intimidating. Especially if their child has never been in a daycare setting before. Children grow exponentially between 3 and 6 years of age. It’s quite impressive to see what the younger ones are capable of doing while learning and growing under the leadership and influence of students twice their age.
In Montessori, we want the materials to teach the children, allowing them to work independently. The same goes for their fellow peers; we want the older children to teach, guide, lead, influence, and motivate their younger friends. Through this structure, the younger students observe and imitate the older student’s actions, and the older students gain leadership skills as they guide and support their fellow classmates. They learn to be patient and compassionate for those who rely on them for help. Competition in the classroom is eliminated because every child is at a different stage of learning.
Children learn more readily from other children than they do from adults…think of when you used to play “school” with your other childhood friends. It comes naturally to our little ones.
Maria Montessori observed that children are eager to learn, and she identified self-directed, observational learning as a central theme of childhood. Describing the phenomenon of observational learning in a multi-age group, Montessori wrote that the child “…suddenly becomes aware of his companions, and is almost as deeply interested as we are in the progress of their work.”
Through my observations in our primary community, I’ve witnessed multiple occasions of older students voluntarily helping their younger friends. I’ve witnessed lessons being given between the two, as if they themselves were the Guide. I’ve seen a 5 year old help a younger friend carry a full water pitcher to the hand washing basin, showing them how to walk with much precision while balancing the container, carefully placing one foot in front of the other. I’ve watched as older students volunteered their time to help roll up nap rolls for those who couldn’t yet do it themselves, tutoring them on each careful step. I have to restrain myself from interfering when I see a young child struggling to carry a full block of knobbed-cylinders, and watch as it tumbles to the floor, because I know that it will only take a few seconds for their older friends to rush over and help clean up the work. These opportunities are so precious to our older students, and play a large role in their growth and development.
Angeline Stoll Lillard describes the Montessori multi-age setting this way, “Montessori encourages learning from peers in part by using three-year age groupings. This ensures that as children move through the classroom they will be exposed to older and younger peers, facilitating both imitative learning and peer tutoring… Dr. Montessori was quite clear about the need for this mix of ages.” (Montessori: The Schience Behind the Genius)
In conclusion, many parents look at a multi-age classroom and ask, “How does one teacher take care of so many students with such an age difference?”. The answer is simple…she doesn’t. The only way this is possible is with the help and participation from the older students. They know their expectations and roles in the community, and take on the role of being a leader, guiding and teaching their younger peers. Montessori is beautiful in this way; the children work together in a harmonious and peaceful learning environment, helping one another to achieve their full learning potential.