Keep Calm and Avoid Biscuits

One of the biggest take-aways from playworker Marc Armitage’s March talk at the Providence Children’s Museum– part of his “Keep Calm and Play On” tour– concerned Vygotsky, the Russian theorist who died in 1931.  Armitage said that Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD), what is contemporarily known as scaffolding, really focused not on “adult guidance” but on the role of “more capable peers” (Vygotsky 1978: 86). In Sweden and Denmark, early translations of Vygotsky’s work influenced the development of early childhood learning approaches, many of which emphasize the peer-to-peer collaboration that can happen in mixed-age schooling environments. In contrast, in the United States, Vygotsky’s work– though partially translated as early as the 1950s– was not fully recognized until the late 1970s, coinciding with the “rapid proliferation” of children’s museums and other forms of alternative learning environments in the Unites States (Lewin 1989: 55). The term “scaffolding” never appears in Vygotsky’s work and was actually coined in an American study by Wood, Bruner & Ross (1976). Scaffolding has been taken to mean adult guidance and support of children’s learning, overshadowing the learning and playing that takes place in groups with “more capable peers.”

In sum: according to Armitage and from my own observations, kids learn well when playing in mixed age groups. And where do we put kids for the majority of their time? In age-segregated groups.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I watch six high school students, my colleagues in community work at my museum, interact with younger children.  They truly go “questing with the children they want to guide,” just as Manter (1937:7) described play leaders in the early days of the children’s museum movement. There’s a mutuality to their play that is incredibly evident. After one group of kids played for about an hour with one of the teens, I asked them to tell me about what they did.

“We acted, we got to scream, we got to do whatever we want,” said an eight-year-old girl. “And we got to play with him,” she said, pointing to the 15-year-old teen.

“And it was fun,” interjected a seven-year-old boy. “It wasn’t like work, it was just having fun and doing nothing. The best part was following him,” again, pointing to the teen.

The teen, when interviewed after weeks of playing with groups of children ranging in age from six to twelve, reported increased feelings of confidence. “The way kids react to me at the museum– asking for me by name, learning from me– shows that I have something to give.”

Age mixing in children’s play has occurred during the majority of the human species existence; it is only recently that we have been able to separate by age. Peter Gray, of Boston College, writes that there is not a lot of research on the effects of mixed-age play groups and this type of bi-directional learning.

“If beings from another planet were to try to learn about our children’s social interactions by reading our journals of developmental psychology, the aliens might well conclude that children interact only with adults and with peers of almost precisely their same age. They might wonder how and why we isolate six-year-olds from nine-year-olds or nine-year-olds from teenagers.” (Gray 2011: 518)

At typical elementary schools, children play on playgrounds segregated by age; these playgrounds are even praised for their developmental appropriateness. However, it seems that kind of age-segregation can inhibit the kind of social-emotional gains that Gray has observed at Sudbury Valley School, a mixed-age, democratically governed school in Framingham. An excerpt from his observational notebook:

As I sat near the school’s playground, I watched two ten-year-old girls easily and nonchalantly perform the trick of walking upright down the slide. A six-year-old girl nearby watched them more intently than I, and then she climbed the ladder and started gingerly to walk down the slide herself. This was clearly a challenge for the little girl. She walked with knees bent and hands down, ready to grab the rails if she lost balance. I also noticed that the two older girls remained next to the slide and looked on with a degree of apprehension, ready to catch her, but not too obviously so, if she should fall. One said, “You don’t have to do it, you can just slide,” but the little girl continued walking, slowly, and beamed with pride when she made it to the bottom. Shortly after that, the two older girls began climbing a nearby tree, and the younger girl followed them in that activity too. The little girl was clearly motivated to do, with effort, what the older girls could do with ease. (Gray 2011: 512)

At the museum, we often hear complaints from adults about older kids acting too “rough” and “running over” younger kids. Though that’s an overstatement, if there is truth there perhaps it’s because the older kids are not as used to being around younger children. Perhaps the museum is one of the only places they can learn to negotiate and learn together, getting more towards the “not too obviously so” caretaking we see in Gray’s observation. Here is an excerpt from an observation I did last year, after four boys (ages 8 – 12) and a female caregiver entered an exhibit.

“They’re here! Go faster!” the oldest boy says. He climbs up into one of two towers connected by a rope bridge. Another boy starts to make a hissing sound with his mouth and bares his teeth. The other boys giggle quietly and turn to run into the tower. “Get up! Get up!” says the oldest boy. The female caregiver says, from below the tower, “Guys, watch out for little kids!”  A little girl, approximately 2.5 years old, enters the tower on the right side. The boys shift slightly. The caregiver reiterates, “There are little kids! Watch out!” The oldest boy turns to the others, points to the toddler, and says “Hurry! It’s a zombie!” They all recoil from the toddler and leave the tower and go to another tower across the room. 

The boys creatively involved the “obstacle”– a much younger child– into their play story. The stilted walk of a toddler does, after all, sometimes resemble a zombie shuffle. However, later, I also watched as the boys paused their play to help an overstimulated toddler get down from the tower. They, like the girls in Gray’s observation, had a subtle and sensitive understanding of the situation.

Inspired by the story of the boys incorporating the toddler as a zombie, the teens with whom I work created a similar storyline for another day at the museum. As part of a spy game– targeted at kids ages 6 and up– they told participants that they must avoid “biscuits.” This, of course, was a code name for children under the age of three, the very kids that parents and caregivers worry the older kids will “trample.” The teens, in their very knowing way, transformed a potential point of anxiety into part of the game. As “more capable peers,” they playfully guided the younger children in their groups. I get the sense that Vygotsky, though he would have no idea what a “biscuit” was, would approve.


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