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Working with Mixed-age Groups

'Help! The children's group that I lead has lovely children, but the youngest is 4 and the eldest is 11. How can I teach them all well, altogether?'

Many of us all across the country who are involved in leading children's groups are in this situation. There are so many great schemes of work on the market that can help us facilitate our children's worship and learning about faith and the Bible but a complicating factor is that each one of us is faced with different dynamics and a wide range of ages and abilities within our groups.

For many of us, we have just a few children each week and the age range is vast and the range of the children's interests is broader still. So, how can we meet each child where they are in their faith and learning journey and help them to grow?

Here are six areas that may be helpful as we seek to include all the children in our groups:

Positive beginnings

The tone and atmosphere for our groups is set within the first minute of the children's entering the space that we use. A great way of ensuring that each child is included from the start is by greeting them all individually at the door and making good eye contact and sharing a smile with each individual.

You will need to avoid long individual conversations at this point, as you will want to begin your session as quickly as possible, but a greeting like 'Hello Katy, I'm so glad you're here. We missed you last week. Can you go and sit by the radiator and get everyone to sit in a circle for me. please?' will go a long way to include a mature 11-year-old; whereas to involve and engage an active 5- year-old you may want to greet him with, 'Hey Jack, fantastic new trainers - I bet you can run fast in those! We're going to be thinking about the story of Jonah today, can you walk over to the circle and sit by Katy for me, please?

See if you can remember anything about the story of Jonah while you're walking. I'm going to ask you what you've remembered when I get there.'

Knowing the children

It seems like an obvious thing to suggest: the better we know our children and can identify the things that make them tick and excite them, the more likely they are going to be engaged in and participate in the learning that is going on. You might find it useful to reflect on the following questions:

If you think your group could benefit from your knowing them better, you could play one of the many icebreaker games available. Maybe you could begin each session with a different 'getting to know you' game. Alternatively, a short conversation with a parent or carer would lend some insight into the children as individuals.

Praying for the children

Praying for the children, individually and by name as we sit down to think and prepare our session, is a great way of both supporting them in their faith journey and disciplining ourselves to see them all as individuals with individual needs and enjoyments rather than as a group. The Bible tells us that God is very concerned about these children growing in their love for him and their knowledge of him. He will answer your prayers!

A great model for praying for our children is:

Thank you God for _________(name). Thank you that you have made them the way they are and for their enthusiasm about __________________. Please be with them today as they are ______________. Please help them to grow more in love with you through the things that we think about together. Please help me as I prepare this week to think of something that will stick in the ir memory and encourage them to grow in their spiritual journey. Thank you that you love ___________ (name) so much; please help me to show that love to them consistently this week.

Setting expectations

As adults, we know that if what we are doing is going to be seen or talked about, we pay special attention to it. Children work in exactly the same way. I have found that when working with a group of children, if they know that the final five minutes of each sessions is going to be spent sharing 'one thing that I have learned and one thing that I want to think about this week', they will pay particular attention during the specific learning times, particularly if at the next session you ask them how they got on thinking about 'X' from last week.

Setting the very clear expectation that 'we are all learning and growing together every time we meet' raises the game for everyone - especially if as adults we join in with this sharing, too.

Suitable objectives

When working with mixed age groups, it is obvious that we are going to expect older children to access a deeper level of learning than younger children, as they are usually building on pre-existing knowledge and understanding. Younger children and children with less experience of the Bible will begin by learning about the stories that it contains and as the children (and we) revisit stories and ideas in the Bible, we can be encouraging them to learn from the stories, too, discovering more about God and how the stories teach us about what he is like and how this can apply to us in our everyday situations.

It is therefore helpful to set objectives that are at heart the same, but are tailored for the different groups of children within our groups. If we set realistic and attainable objectives for the children, then the activities and outcomes from the sessions will begin to suggest themselves.

For example, if the Bible focus for your session is John 9 (Jesus heals a man who is born blind), your differentiated objectives could be as follows:

In setting objectives like this, each age group will be picking up the same learning, but where they are able, the children have the opportunity to 'take the next step' in learning from the story.

Suitable activities

If we set realistic and attainable objectives for the children, then the activities and outcomes from the sessions will begin to suggest themselves. When working in mixed age groups, planning activities which are creative tend to work really well. For example, reinforcing learning though drama games, thinking activities, getting the children to plan and ask questions, encouraging them to respond to a story with pictures or modelling clay are all activities that children can participate in individually while giving you time to talk to each child about what they are doing, thus encouraging them and reinforcing their own learning outcomes at their level.

It can also be useful to ask children to work in pairs or threes, either mixed ages to support younger or lower achieving individuals or grouping similar children together, requiring them and showing them how to 'push' each other and ask questions that will extend their learning.

Conclusion

It is important to say that it is unrealistic to expect ourselves to be extending all of the children all of the time. However, it is vital that each child feels valued and catered for at their own level and for who they are within our groups. We are facilitating the children to learn together with us as a group while accessing the learning at their own level, growing in our love for God together whilst still impacting each one as an individual.

These areas that we have thought about are only a starting point to stimulate our thinking and encourage us to continue to think of working with mixed age groups in terms of opportunities rather than difficulties. We are ambassadors for Christ to these children and are a way in which he shows them how important they are to him.

There are many ideas for games and activities in the ideas section on this website. They are all free and are tried and tested, so please do make use of them as you plan you sessions with your group. If any questions or queries arise, please do get in touch with us through the contact page of this website.