Most Pre-school teachers in the UK are experienced at teaching children aged 3-5. It is rare however, that graduates or teachers with Qualified Teacher Status are appointed to teach children of 2 or under. This may be set to change, as children from disadvantaged backgrounds are offered government-funded early education. There is lively debate as to the ‘best’ type of setting for these children but evidence shows that the quality of the setting is the most important factor. Graduate and teacher led settings have been shown to be the most effective at closing the achievement gap (Matters et al 2014).
‘Early Education’ have published an excellent briefing for school leaders considering offering provision to 2-year-olds. It also offers valuable advice to anyone considering teaching 2-year-olds. In the search for graduate teachers for this age group, it is possible that experienced and well qualified teachers will be asked to take on a new role of leading this provision. This may be daunting. It certainly was for me the first time I encountered this age group.
When I began working in a mixed age nursery environment for 2-5 year olds, I was used to teaching children who could sit on a carpet in a large group and listen, who could draw representational figures, talk and share ideas, were toilet trained and who played for the most part, cooperatively with their peers. Planning for the 2-year-olds terrified me at first but I soon learned that creating an environment in which they could freely explore and move around was the most important consideration.
Our mixed age setting was split into 3 rooms. Sometimes the 2-year-olds were in their own group (and always at small group time) but for a large chunk of time, they were mixed with 3 and 4-year-olds. Teaching in a mixed age setting comes with its own challenges.
Common Concerns About Teaching in Mixed Age Settings
If you are a parent of more than one child, begin by thinking about how you manage the challenges below at home. In a mixed age family unit, compromises have to be made but the youngest children’s experiences are enriched by the older siblings and the older children learn to nurture, guide and understand different needs.
How do you find activities that are appropriate for 2 year olds but also challenging enough for the older children?
Choose activities that are open-ended. Building blocks, small world play, painting, drawing, clay, water, sand and other sensory activities, imaginative play and recycled materials are perfect for all ages. Make sure there are times during the day when children are in a smaller group with same age peers. Build an engaging outdoor learning environment and allow the children to move freely between indoor and outdoors.
How can you ensure safety without denying the older children valuable experiences?
Tools can be kept out of reach of toddlers inquisitive hands but in a place where older children can reach or ask an adult to get it. It is important to me that my children have ready access to mark making materials but when my youngest was at the drawing on walls stage, these were pushed back on the shelf where she could not reach but her sisters could.
If younger children want to use scissors, clay tools or small loose parts don’t deny them the opportunity; simply ensure an adult is sat with them to support them. Keep the materials to one area which has adult supervision.
How do you stop the younger ones spoiling older children’s games by knocking down things they have built or taking toys they are playing with?
Learning to negotiate with younger children is important, learning that children of different ages have different needs and they do not mean to spoil things for the older children. Encourage older children to play at building and knocking things down with the younger children and allow the older children to place their completed models out of the younger children’s reach. Have special places for ongoing projects and ensure that there is some time with their own age group. Projects requiring a finished product or advanced skills are best for small group time.
Additional things I learned about teaching 2-year-olds
- They like to move around and explore. Often, they will not stay at one activity for long and prefer activities with lots of space rather than at a table top.
- They find large groups distracting. Do not expect them to sit for a story session with 3 and 4-year-olds as they will more than likely lose interest before the end. They would much prefer to be read a short book in a small group, or better still 1:1 on an adult’s lap.
- They like songs that are simple and short with actions, puppets, props or simple instruments to maintain interest . Again this is best in a small group
- They love messy, tactile or sensory play and are interested in exploring materials. They are fascinated by processes and how things work. This may mean they will use materials in unexpected ways – tipping, throwing or splashing, for example. Try to channel these investigations in positive ways. Do not expect them to create a finished art product.
- Some are not yet talking, others may be difficult to understand. It takes time to build relationships with these children and understand their needs. Play alongside them and observe. Build positive relationships with parents and help the children to build a secure relationship with you
- They are still learning to use tools and will need adult supervision when using scissors, small items and books.
- They learn by repetition, so don’t be worried that your planning isn’t varied. Try to spot schemas and re-occurring fascinations and plan a variety of experiences to support them.
- ‘Art’ projects work best on a large-scale. Rolls and large sheets of paper, chunky crayons, blocks of clay, pavement chalk and large brushes are all perfect for this age group.
- They will assert their independence. Give them plenty of choices – I need you to come and have a drink, would you like a blue or a red cup?
Below are a selection of activities for 2-year-olds or in mixed age settings.
Do not limit this to a home corner, use your imagination to create familiar experiences like shopping, new ones such as a vets or pure fantasy with pirates or fairies.
These are great for a water or light table.
With paint or with water. Decorating brushes are especially popular.
Indoors, outdoors or even in the rain.
Create a music garden or sound wall
An essential material in any early years classroom.
Large Scale Projects
Paint on the ground, use large rolls of paper to print with feet, hands, leaves etc, paint large cardboard boxes, build with big bricks.
Finding hidden objects, How many of a given object can they find, following a checklist, finding different coloured objects, searching for things of interest or excavation.
Loose Parts and Nature Play
Loose parts don’t have to be small and young children are fascinated by mud, sticks and other natural materials.
Potion Making is great for water tables or outdoors for sensory exploration and scientific experimentation.
Many sensory materials can be made with simple materials, for example, Goop. playdough, slime, or bubble mixture. A list of sensory recipes is available for downloadfrom TES Connect.
Stories and Songs
Bookfinder is an excellent resource for finding books suitable for a particular age groups as are the booklists provided by the National Literacy Trust.
Words for Life have an excellent list of songs for young children complete with lyrics and MP3’s. This list of songs for 2-year-olds from teaching 2 and 3 year olds is also worth consulting.