Karina is not unlike many other family child care providers. She opens her home to care for four other children in addition to her own four year old son. She cares for a young infant and his two year sister full time. She welcomes a three year old on Tuesday and Friday and eight year old Jalika joins the group every afternoon after school.
Unlike child care center teachers, family child care providers often care for children of many ages. Family child care providers may offer services for children as young as six weeks of age and many provide afterschool or summer care for older children as well. Caring for a mixed age group presents a unique set of challenges and benefits for the caregiver.
- The caregiver must take extra safety precautions when there are infants or toddlers in care.
- It may difficult to find snack items that are appropriate for all age groups.
- Planning structured activities is difficult when there are children with various ability levels and interests.
- Daily routines such as nap or meal times may need to be more flexible to accommodate different aged children.
- Older children may prefer same age peers and resent the younger child in a play group.
- Multi-age groups offer children opportunities to develop and practice social skills.
- There is a wider range of behavior and performance that is likely to be accepted and tolerated by the adults as well as by the children themselves.
- There is often less competitive and more cooperative or helpful behaviors.
- Mixed-age group care is more like a home setting and often a more comfortable and secure setting for young children.
- Siblings are not separated.
- By design, mixed-age group care is geared more to the needs of individuals. Children in such groups have greater freedom to develop at their own rate.
- Older children learn to adapt their language and social skills to relate with younger children, often learning patience, compassion and problem solving skills.
- Younger children are challenged by older children and often engage in more complex activities then when they play with same age peers.
Tips for caring for mixed-age groups
- Provide a wide range of choices. Most caregivers find that most of the day is comprised of unstructured “free play” where they provide a wide range of materials and activities that are appropriate for various children.
- Provide some materials that are used specifically for an age group. Not all toys or areas need to be “one size fits all.” It is fine to have some toys that are of specific interest for only one age group.
- Consider ages of children when you set up the childcare space. Safety is paramount. Scissors that are used by school-aged children may need to be stored out of the reach of toddlers. Materials that are safe and appropriate for younger children can be arranged in easy to reach bins or containers. You may want to provide smaller sized furniture and step stools for younger children too.
- Select toys and materials that are open ended and can be used in many ways. Balls, art materials, blocks can be used by children with various abilities, they will use the material in increasingly complex ways.
- Focus on individual or small group activities. Asking a group of children of differing ages to participate together may bore older children or frustrate younger children.
- Use the opportunities to promote cooperation and team work. Encourage children to help each other and solve problems together.
- Accept the fact you may need to be flexible when scheduling daily routines. Meeting the needs of individual children may mean you need to veer from routine. You may find a need to prepare an extra snack for an afterschool child or set up a quiet area for the youngster who still needs a nap.