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Mix It Up! How Mixed-Age Groups Improve Your VBS

When it comes to organizing kids at your VBS, mixed-age groups may seem like a good idea…but how do you actually pull it off? Read on to hear one former VBS-director-turned-Group-editor’s discovery of how mixed-age groups can make all the difference. 

Social scientists have researched what happens when children of different ages play and learn together. And they’ve found benefits for children of all ages. Younger kids look up to older kids. And, surprisingly, older kids are drawn to younger kids, too. They’re eager to be “experts” and friends that young children look up to.

Perhaps you’ve seen this play out in everyday life. Just picture it: You’ve invited several families with children to your home. Do you rigidly separate kids by grades, or do you let them all organically play and explore together? You may even request that your oldest “look out for your little sister!” Some of my fondest childhood memories are playing with my older brother and cousin who were several grade levels ahead of me in school. I loved playing, inventing, and growing with the “big kids.”

Since Group’s very first VBS over 25 years ago, mixed-age Crews have been a key ingredient for success. Mixed-age Crews are small groups of multi-age kids. A Crew contains five kids in first, second, third, fourth, or fifth grade, plus one adult or teen leader, called a Crew Leader.

Give Mixed-Age Groups a Try!

You may be skeptical about placing kids in mixed-age Crews at your VBS. Perhaps your children’s ministry has never functioned that way before! Why shake things up and combine ages?

When I first led Group VBS at my church, I was completely accustomed to grade-specific teaching. I trembled at the idea of mixing things up. I worried what kids would say if they weren’t with their same-grade friends. And I worried about what parents would say—especially when their children invited friends from the community to our VBS. Separating kids into different mixed-age crews seemed unkind and unwelcoming.

Then one year, I decided to follow my Ultimate Director Guide’s stellar advice and give it a try. That year, I had a particularly unruly group of second grade boys and couldn’t seem to find a volunteer brave enough to lead them all. So desperate times called for desperate measures! I stretched out of my comfort zone, gave mixed-age Crews a chance, and found that, when it comes to mixed-age crews, the pros far outweigh the cons.

Now, I’m on the Group VBS Editorial Team! And year after year at our field tests, we discover that kids enjoy being in mixed-age Crews. Sure, it’s a little different for them at first, but as kids warm up to their crewmates, we see them working together, helping one another, and forming unique friendships. There are few complaints, and discipline problems are almost nonexistent.

The Pros: Advantages of Mixed-Age Small Groups

The online Group U training course called “Age-Level Insights for Spiritual Formation” explains the four advantages of mixed-age small groups. They are:

Mixed-age groups encourage teamwork rather than competition.

When kids are grouped in age-graded classes, there’s more emphasis on comparison—“I can do better!”—and competition—“I can do it faster!” However, when you group children in mixed-age Crews, you nearly eliminate the unspoken desire for kids to compare or compete. Instead, older kids help younger ones with challenging tasks.  Young kids seek to emulate the older, “cool” kids in their Crews.

Mixed-age groups reduce discipline problems.

Now, we love kids of all ages, but there’s something intimidating about that group of all fourth-grade boys! When you split up that daunting bunch of preteen kids, they suddenly lose their “audience”—that is, one another—and your discipline problems nearly vanish. You’ll get the same delightful effect when you split up middle-elementary cliques, some siblings, and other “troublesome twosomes.” It works!

Mixed-age Crews encourage relationship building.

By mixing ages to form small groups, you provide a rare opportunity for kids of all ages to get to know one another. Most same-age kids in your community are with one another during school, sports, and other functions. Multi-age Crews give kids the chance to interact and build meaningful relationships with new friends.

Mixed-age Crews are easier to work with.

Your teachers and volunteers will love how easy it is to work with kids of mixed ages. Rather than trying to assist a group of 6-year-olds with reading, a volunteer can give one-on-one attention to one 6-year-old. And believe it or not, older kids will relish their helping roles as they lead with their strengths.

Overcoming the Cons: Practical Tips to Help

This all sounds good in theory, but what happens when challenges arise? Well, we’ve got you covered! Consider these tips when planning for mixed-age groups.

Place visiting friends in the same group, not Crew.

At my church, five Crews traveled together from station to station in one big group. Crews were five kids, plus one adult or teen helper. Groups were made up of five Crews (or 25 kids plus their five teen or adult helpers).

So when arranging Crews, I honored friend requests by placing friends in the same group, rather than Crew. Visiting friends and besties got to be in the same spaces together the whole time. But when it was time circle up for a chat or experience with their Crew, they befriended new kids and helpers! It worked like a charm. Kids were near their friends in their group while they made new friends in their Crews!

Don’t overthink it.

At first, I laboriously worked as a matchmaker, assembling Crews with kids’ unique personalities and preferences in mind. I overthought everything! Later, I designated a volunteer to create Crews, or let VBS Pro do the work of assembling Crews for me. Once Crews were assigned, I’d made a few tweaks based on my insider knowledge of kids and their needs. It saved so much time—and so much sanity!

Keep Crews small.

Too often, Crew size is determined by our number of volunteers available. We may only have two volunteers for 50 elementary kids, so “Crews” are made up of 25 kids instead of five. Yikes!

So let’s flip our mindset. If we average 50 elementary kids, we need to have 10 volunteers there, too. Volunteers will stick around when they aren’t overwhelmed with too many children in their care—and they’ll thrive! When volunteers have a good experience, they’re likely to serve again—and invite their friends! So build a volunteer team that’s committed to leading small. You’ll find that as relationships with their few kids grow, volunteers’ level of commitment will grow, too.

Remember your “why.”

It’s hard to tell parents that their child and friend aren’t in the same Crew. Even if they rotate through VBS in the same group, communicating the “why” behind mixed-age groups isn’t always fun. But I’ve found that churches who truly value reaching kids in the community are willing to give mixed-age groups a try. Why? Well…

Imagine you are a child from the community whose parents saw a flyer about VBS and signed you up. You walk into a church building where most of the kids already know each other. The “church kids” are innocently giving all their attention to their friends while you and a few other kids from the community sit on the sidelines. Would you want to come back? Would your heart be open to hear about a friend named Jesus? The takeaway for visitors from the community could be “You’re not one of us.” Oh, dear.

But mixed-age Crews can change that! Mixed-age Crews level the playing field and create a welcoming place for all kids to grow deeper friendship with Jesus and each other. Isn’t that what VBS—and ministry to children—is all about?

With mixed-age groups, vision becomes reality.

Truly reaching your community with Jesus’ love requires planning an intentional welcome. And mixed-age Crews can help.

Ready to try mixed-age Crews at your church? You just might see the beginning of some beautiful friendships as your mission and vision for VBS come to life!

Need more VBS ideas? Check out 10 Easy VBS Tips That’ll Make Leading Vacation Bible School a Breeze. And if you’re looking to implement the best of Group VBS on Sunday mornings, too, check out Simply Loved curriculum!

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Mix It Up! How Mixed-Age Groups Impro...

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