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A Mixed-Age Environment

Thoughts & Reflections

A mixed-age environment is fundamental to a Montessori classroom, and we see the benefits of it daily. We wanted to explore some of those benefits in greater detail, as well as hypothesizing some of the unique reasons it is so wonderful in a Montessori classroom.

mixed age 3

All Montessori classrooms have a mixed-age group, usually three years. In the toddler or Nido environments, this age range might be a year and a half. This arguably wide range is part of the reason we see the benefit in a Montessori classroom.

A three-year-old literally and figuratively looks up to a six year old. They might not be capable of the things a six year old is capable of, but they want to emulate them. The six year old remembers being “little,” spilling things, getting stuck with a material, and remembers the Big Kids who helped them.

The three year old has a model; the six year old has the opportunity to be the model, to practice leadership and patience and empathy. This wide range encourages the best in everyone. The children form a sort of family, caring for and about one-another, seeing another’s joy or distress as their own, solving problems and celebrating together.

The older children feel a great sense of ownership of their classroom, and usher in a new generation of family members, helping them to tidy spills, polish correctly, learn map vocabulary. Younger children see and value this pride, integrity, and kindness, and embody these values themselves.

mixed age 4

Montessori, particularly for younger children, is founded on one-on-one education. The materials in a Montessori classroom remain the same, but when a child is ready for each material, how they attach to it, how quickly they master it, and how they apply that knowledge to their world are all dramatically different from child to child.

“ Even children at a similar age are observed individually so the teacher can most effectively meet their unique needs. ”

Children might be encouraged to observe a lesson the teacher is giving another child, or might choose to observe a child working, but, for the most part, lessons are given individually. Because of the individual nature of the presentations, a teacher doesn’t cater a lesson to all the three year olds, much less the entire class.

Children are presented with the work most uniquely suited to their needs at this particular moment, not expected to attend to a lesson that, developmentally, is inappropriate for them.

mixed age 5

Because of the diverse range of ages in a Montessori classroom, combined with the individualized nature of teacher-child interactions, there is a wide range of materials on the shelves in a Montessori classroom. Not every material needs to be available to every child all the time.

On their first days, very few materials are actually available to a new child. Incrementally, they gain new skills and acquire new knowledge, and new materials are available to them. As a child ages, previous, perhaps simpler materials are still available to a child, but do not hold the same interest as they did when they were more developmentally appropriate for the child.

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One of the great joys of watching a child in his first months in a new primary classroom is the explosion of language that happens as his immediate world is expanded, as he is surrounded by children conversing, singing, talking to themselves all day long.

Language is not only modeled by adults, as it is in any situation, but also by the children with a wide range of abilities and experiences. Children speak with and listen to one another all day long, and they are internalizing new vocabulary, grammar, and syntax constantly. Again, emulation plays a strong role in language development. Children want to be understood by their classmates, both younger and older, and conform to common language conventions. The language being used by everyone is elevated.

mixed age 1

For these same reasons, it might be easy to see how a child in a group of children of similar age might not benefit from that mixed-age environment. With group-teaching styles, materials designed to meet the needs of most, and a limited scope in ability and experience, those at the edge of the age limit might not have their needs met; how could they?

This is precisely why a Montessori classroom teaches individually, with materials designed to meet a need at a specific developmental stage, and encompass a wider age range. The difficulty faced in a different environment is precisely the strength of Montessori.

Written by:

Charlotte Wood

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