Mixing It Up with Multiples

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September 6th was National Read a Book Day! Seriously. There must be something for every day. The fact that there is a day dedicated to reading books is exciting, although let’s not limit it to just one! I was not only excited for National Read a Book Day simply because I'm a teacher and I love to read but also because reading is a simple activity that I can do simultaneously with our children and they enjoy it.

I don't want to mislead you; there are challenges with this simple activity. Our boys are 2.5 years old and eleven months (nineteen months apart, and yes that was planned). There are occasional battles over who gets to hold the book, turn the pages, or, with our youngest, attempt to eat the book. But, for the most part, they love this time of listening to me read and I can easily find ways to include both of them.

While I may be relatively new to raising two children and finding activities that incorporate both of them while still meeting their individual needs, I leverage my experiences as an elementary teacher and a nanny to 0-4 year olds. Working with groups of children, or even just two children, whose skills and abilities differ is beautiful. Sometimes it's a beautiful mess, and that's okay. Mixed-age activities provide children opportunities to develop and practice important social skills such as sharing, being gentle, being patient, sharing, having compassion, being gentle, showing empathy, sharing, solving problems, SHARING, and BEING GENTLE! Geez, the emphasis is for our toddler and his big brother hazing techniques.

Here are the boys exploring their first Kids’ Candor Educational Modules and practicing how to share:

There are numerous benefits that we as parents and caregivers will witness including, but obviously not limited to, cute photo opportunities and harmony. Then there are benefits we will not witness immediately. Or even within weeks. Or months or years and, for little ones, it's developmentally appropriate. Older children, siblings or not, will become the teachers and leaders. My 5th grade students matured as role models and transformed into super stars for their kindergarten book buddies, which was another fun way to encourage reading. With the older children I care for as a nanny, I have observed their care taking and helpful behaviors when they are near our youngest son. They role play changing a diaper and dressing and burping a doll. If our baby wasn't an escape artist, perhaps I would let one change him! Sometimes "teacher" and "leader" can be interpreted as "boss", and distinguishing those terms is another lesson. Furthermore, I have also noticed that older children seem to circle back to toys meant for younger children and they find more creative ways to use them.

Here our oldest son thought it was hilarious to make a pig-sheep and to play with his younger brother’s puzzle:

    

The younger children gain from these experiences as well; they are challenged by the older children and they want to emulate them. They want to play with the big kids and copy what seems like everything. They are exposed to more language and they want to engage in more complex and physical activities.

Engaging in activities with mixed ages and abilities has its challenges. I include abilities because we know that every child is unique and does not develop in a cookie-cutter fashion. Safety is first especially with toddlers and infants. There are chairs and shelves to climb, cabinets and doors to open, and, sometimes, utensils on the counter. Then there are otherwise non-hazardous items that can easily fit into a child's mouth such as tiny Legos, crumbs on the floor, craft scissors, crayons, Play Doh, and paper. Paper! Beyond safety there are challenges in planning and managing activities for various interests, ability levels, and skills. Not everyone can play Elsa and sing Frozen songs all day or talk like Elmo for more than 10 minutes. Some of us need a break. And the kids need variety too! Then, even with careful planning, normal daily routines such as naps, diapers, potty training, and snacks may start and end at different times. Although the challenges can be exhausting at times, it is possible and there are ways to make it easier and more enjoyable for everyone.

Here are a few tips for working with children of various ages and abilities, whether the children are siblings, friends, or strangers:

  1. Safety is first. The kids will be happy and secure, and it will also help keep your sanity.
  2. Offer a wide selection of safe toys, books, and materials.
  3. Provide age-specific activities in a safe location or at a safe time. Consider making crafts for older children at a raised table or during a toddler's nap.
  4. Use versatile toys and materials that are open ended.
  5. Incorporate books and songs that can be used for a variety of ages especially if there is a large age gap; tailor your questions and comments accordingly.
  6. Spend time focusing on an activity with each child. They love your attention!
  7. Use this time to practice and celebrate cooperation and teamwork.
  8. Be flexible.
  9. Have fun!

When I was 38 weeks pregnant and our oldest was 18 months, a mother of four kids who are five years old and younger gave me beautiful advice. She told me that no matter how chaotic times become to try my best to not let them see me stressed. I have found this to be helpful with our children and others. Kids feed off the energy we bring, and it's much easier to engage children when we are having fun.

Do you see why reading works so well? I love it. Other activities that have worked for us include building with red bricks, blocks, and Duplos; stacking and sorting anything; dancing and singing; using rhythm instruments; doing anything with balls; creating stories with props like stuffed animals, scarves, and blankets; going on a nature walk; playing with water and containers; driving cars, trucks, and trains; hiding in boxes (and cabinets); and, when I'm feeling brave and can keep a close eye on our youngest, coloring and painting.

What activities do you like to do with children of mixed ages and abilities? I would love to hear your ideas! 

Remember, we can celebrate National Read a Book Day every day!

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Jessica Carley Badolato
Jessica Carley Badolato

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