It’s a bold move, swapping age-segmented rooms for a free-range, mixed-age model in an early childhood education and care service. Especially when your service has 100 children enrolled every day.
But that is exactly what Milford Lodge, a child care centre at Buderim on the Sunshine Coast, has done. The way they handled the change is part of the reason Milford Lodge received its first Excellent rating from the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) in 2016.
Their 'key educator approach', where children select a key person to be their main source of security for several years is part of the reason Milford Lodge was re-awarded an Excellent rating in May 2019.
Under this approach, a 4-year-old might start each day and share meals with the educator who looked after them as a baby.
Milford Lodge educational leader Nancy Andrews said the move to mixed-age programming and practice had brought benefits to children and educators.
‘Straight after we made the move, the nature of the children’s play began to change,’ Nancy said.
‘Younger children innately wish to spend time with older, more competent children and older children have a natural desire to help and nurture younger children.
‘The children began to act completely differently. There was more sharing and less competition than when the children were separated into age groups.’
To transition successfully to mixed-age programming, Milford Lodge educators consulted extensively with families. They documented their conversations to show early childhood regulatory officers during ratings visits.
For example a number of families of siblings had expressed appreciation that their children were able to spend time together in their home room at play and meal times.
Early childhood regulatory officers from the department would also want to see evidence of reflective practice among educators to ensure mixed-age programming and practice suited each child’s individual agency and needs.
Another consideration is staffing. Educator-child ratios in mixed-age practice are calculated according to the youngest child in care.
For example, an educator caring for one age group can also be counted against another group as long as ratios and adequate supervision is maintained. Read more about staffing and mixed-age ratios on page 430 of ACECQA’s Guide to the National Quality Framework.
Nancy said the change in behaviour was obvious.
‘For example, if children of the same age were walking along a low climbing beam, they would push past each other and those who were passed would push back.
‘But when all the children are together, the older child would manoeuvre carefully around the younger child.
‘It was as if they knew the younger one had less developed peripheral vision and special care needed to be taken.
‘They were less competitive in other ways too. Let’s face it, 2-year-olds can be pretty egotistical. If they see something they want, they’ll try to take it off the other 2-year-old because developmentally they are asserting their independence and only beginning to learn co-operation skills.
But an older child with more higher-order thinking can see that the same toy can be found elsewhere so they’ll go off and get it. There is more compromise and less confrontation.
‘As educators, we are observing children’s developmental growth all the time so it is very interesting for us to witness this behaviour.'