During the long course of human history, play almost always occurred in age-mixed settings. The biological foundations for play evolved to serve educative purposes in settings where children were almost never segregated by age. Anthropologists who have studied play in hunter-gatherer groups report that a typical playgroup might range in age from age 4 through 12, or 8 through 17.
When we observe play in age-segregated settings (such as school playgrounds) — where 6-year-olds can play only with other 6-year-olds and 12-year-olds only with other 12-year-olds — we are observing an artifact of modern times. Studying children's play in age-segregated settings is like studying monkeys in cages; we are observing behavior under unnaturally confined conditions. Monkeys in cages show a lot more aggression and dominance behavior than do monkeys in the wild, and the same is true of children in age-segregated settings compared to those in age-mixed settings.
In my last post, I described how age-mixed play allows younger children to participate in, and learn from, activities that would be too difficult for them to do alone or just with age-mates. In this post, I will comment on some qualitative differences between age-mixed play and age-segregated play.
My main point is this: Age-mixed play is less competitive, more creative, and more conducive to practicing new skills than is same-age play.
Age-mixed play is not about competition
Age-mixed play is, in short, more playful than is same-age play. When children who are all nearly the same age play a game, competitiveness can interfere with playfulness. This is especially true in our current culture, which puts so much emphasis on winning and on all sorts of comparisons aimed at determining who is better, an emphasis fostered by our competitive, graded school system.
In contrast, when children who differ widely in age play a game together, the focus shifts from "beating" the other to having fun. There is no pride to be gained by the older, larger, more skilled child in beating the much younger one, and the younger one has no expectation of beating the older one. So, they play the game more joyfully, in a more relaxed manner, modifying the rules in ways to make it both fun and challenging for all involved.
A playful mood facilitates creativity, experimentation, and the learning of new skills, while a serious mood tends to inhibit these and leads a person to fall back on skills that have already been well learned (a point to be expanded upon in a future post).
My own systematic studies of age-mixed play have taken place primarily at the Sudbury Valley School, where, as I have pointed out in a previous post, students age 4 through 18 are free to interact with one another, as they please, at any time of day.
In an essay that he wrote several years after graduating from Sudbury Valley, Michael Greenberg described age-mixed soccer games at the school. I offer the following rather extensive quotation from that essay because it illustrates so beautifully some of the values of age-mixed play.
"One person says, "let's play soccer" to some other people. Whoever feels like playing at the moment comes to the field. There are 6-year-olds, 10-year-olds, 18-year-olds, maybe a staff member, or a parent who feels like joining in. There are boys and girls.
"Teams are chosen with a conscious effort at creating evenly matched sides. ... this often consists of one team having an extra 'big kid' who can play well and the other team getting a small army of 6-year-olds to get in his way. People want even teams because they are playing for fun. It's no fun to play a game with lopsided teams ...
"The game is played by whoever wants to play, for as long as they feel like playing. There will always be certain people who value winning, but there is little peer performance pressure. Most people don't really care who wins.
"Now, you might get the impression that people are not trying very hard to be good at the game, but that's not true. The process of play is only fun if you exert effort and challenge yourself. That is why people developed the idea of games like soccer in the first place. Running around for no reason gets boring, but running around trying to kick a ball between two posts that are guarded by people who are trying to stop you — that's exciting.
"The people who play sports as we do at [Sudbury Valley School] learn far more profound lessons about life than those that can be taught by regimented, performance-oriented sports. They learn teamwork — not the ‘we against them' type of teamwork, but the teamwork of a diverse group of people of diverse talents organizing themselves to pursue a common activity — the teamwork of life. They learn excellence, not the ‘I'm the star' type of excellence, but the type of excellence that comes from setting a standard for yourself to live up to and then trying your best to live up to it.
"I'm 23 years old and I've played a lot of soccer. It would be pretty silly for me to try to be better than the three 8-year-olds who crowd around my feet every time I try to kick the ball. I think that the 8-year-olds are too busy running after kids who are three feet taller than they are to worry about being the best 8-year-old.
"In this game, as in real life, the only standard that matters is one you set for yourself. One of the profound truths you learn is that we are all so different from each other that peer pressure and comparisons of worth are meaningless. If you're 11 years old and you are only allowed to play with other 11-year-olds, it's very hard to glimpse this profound truth, which unlocks the meaning of excellence.
"[You also] learn responsibility and restraint. In all the years of playing very physical games like football, soccer, and basketball, there has never been an injury beyond a minor cut or bruise. People play all these sports in their regular clothes without any of the standard protective equipment that is normally required.
"How can this be explained when people wearing protective pads injure each other with alarming frequency? Because in a regimented, performance-oriented way of looking at sports (or life), making sure you don't hurt someone becomes less important than winning. So it doesn't matter how much you talk about 'sportsmanship' or how many safety pads you wear; people are going to get hurt. When you approach sports (or life) as a fun, exciting process, as something that is done for the sheer joy and beauty of doing it, then not hurting someone, not impairing their ability to enjoy the same process, becomes a top priority ...
"To participate in an activity where the clash of unequal bodies is transformed through teamwork, the pursuit of personal excellence, responsibility, and restraint into a common union of equal souls in pursuit of meaningful experience has been one of the most profound experiences of my life. I am sure it has had a similar effect on others." 
In our systematic observations at Sudbury Valley (noted in the previous post), Jay Feldman and I recorded many occurrences of age-mixed play that fit well with Michael Greenberg's description. In one instance, for example, Feldman watched a tall 15-year-old boy playing basketball with a group of much shorter 8- to 10-year-olds. The older boy rarely shot but spent much time joyfully dribbling while the gang of small boys who made up the opposing team tried to steal the ball from him. Then he would pass to his single teammate (age 8) and encourage him to shoot.
By dribbling and passing rather than shooting, the older boy made the game fun and challenging not just for the younger children but also for himself. Shooting baskets is too easy to be fun when nobody is tall enough to block your shots, but dribbling through a gang of short people who are trying to steal the ball is great; it's a fun way to improve your dribbling.
Here's another example, quoted from one of our articles, which illustrates the creative, lighthearted nature of age-mixed athletic play:
"In an age-mixed game of capture the flag, one team, the Big People, consisted of three adolescents and one 11-year-old, and the other team, the Hordes, consisted of ten 4- to 8-year-olds and one 12-year-old. Larry (age 4) would often run across the line and get captured by Sam (age 17) in an act that included lots of tickling and carrying of Larry in mock combat.
After Larry was set down, he would prance merrily back to his side, without going to jail. Often one or more of the Big People would cross into the Hordes' territory not to go after the flag but simply to run around with a gang of small children chasing them. Nobody seemed to be much focused on winning, but when the Hordes did finally capture the flag, they cheered loudly."
Board games and card games, likewise, are played in more playful, creative, non-competitive ways when the players vary widely in age than when they are age-mates. Feldman observed many games of chess, which happened to be a fad at the time of his research.
Games between equally matched players tended to be quite serious; the players appeared intent on winning. Games between unmatched players, who usually differed widely in age, were more creative and light-hearted. To make the game interesting, the older players would typically self-handicap in some way, for example by deliberately getting into difficult positions, and would frequently point out better moves to the younger players. The older players seemed to be using such games to experiment with new styles of play, which they were not yet ready to try out in serious games.
Some of the most creative and joyful samples of play I have witnessed involved teenagers and younger children engaged together in shared fantasy play. Here is another quotation, describing one such scene that I observed not long ago:
"I was sitting in the playroom at the Sudbury Valley School ... pretending to read a book but surreptitiously observing a remarkable scene. A 13-year-old boy and two 7-year-old boys were creating, purely for their own amusement, a fantastic story involving heroic characters, monsters, and battles.
"The 7-year-olds gleefully shouted out ideas about what would happen next, while the 13-year-old, an excellent artist, translated the ideas into a coherent story and sketched the scenes on the blackboard almost as fast as the younger children could describe them. The game continued for at least half an hour, which was the length of time I permitted myself to watch before moving on.
"I felt privileged to enjoy an artistic creation that, I know, could not have been produced by 7-year-olds alone and almost certainly would not have been produced by 13-year-olds alone. The unbounded enthusiasm and creative imagery of the 7-year-olds I watched, combined with the advanced narrative and artistic abilities of the 13-year-old they played with, provided just the right chemical mix for this creative explosion to occur."
Age-mixing can be a means of matching abilities
My main concern in this essay has been with the value of play among people with unequal abilities. Before closing, though, I should add that freely chosen play among people with relatively equal abilities is also valuable.
In general, children who are similar in age are more similar in abilities than are those who are different in age, but that is not always the case. In an age-mixed environment, a person who is ahead of or behind his or her age-mates in some realm of activity can find equal partners among older or younger children. The child who is awkward at climbing can play at scrambling up rocks and trees with younger children without feeling constantly left behind, and in that way can improve her climbing ability. The talented 11-year-old guitar player, whose musical ability is beyond that of his age-mates, can jam with teenagers who are at his level.
Feldman observed a number of examples of students at Sudbury Valley who were advanced for their age in certain abilities and frequently played with older children. One example was that of 12-year-old Randy, an excellent chess player, who went to tournaments and had an official ranking. His only chess peers at the school were Jack (age 17), Elana (age 17), and Ken (age 18). All of his serious games, with which he measured his own progress, were with these older students. He might practice new moves in games with his age-mates and younger children, but he tested himself in games with students who were five or six years older than himself.
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1. Greenberg, M. (1992). On the nature of sports at S.V.S. and the limitations of language in describing S.V.S. to the world. In D. Greenberg (Ed.), The Sudbury Valley School experience, 3rd ed. Framingham, MA: Sudbury Valley School Press.
2. Gray, P. & Feldman, J. (2004). Playing in the Zone of Proximal Development: Qualities of Self-Directed Age Mixing Between Adolescents and Young Children at a Democratic School. American Journal of Education, 110, 108-145.
3. Gray, P. The value of age-mixed play. Education Week, April 16, 2008.