Analysis: intergenerational learning is a win-win situation for children and older adults

By Carmel Gallagher and Anne Fitzpatrick, TU Dublin

Intergenerational learning (IGL) is the oldest form of learning in society and is central to social solidarity. Yet the trend appears to be towards the professionalisation of services for children and older people. Within families, we know that grandparents and grandchildren enrich each other’s lives in myriad ways. However, IGL as a societal resource is neither acknowledged nor promoted in Irish society.

Age groups are increasingly segregated from each other with young children and older people spending more time in age-segregated settings. There are also fewer opportunities for children and older people to have contact with each other in public spaces.

Do the two age groups really have something to offer each other?

Planned intergenerational learning brings together people from different generations to share knowledge, skills and values and have fun together. It is about learning together, learning from each other and learning about each other. The Together Old and Young programme (TOY), funded by the EU under Erasmus+, is an action research project to promote and develop IGL between young children and older people. Ireland is one of seven European countries are participating in the research.

A change from their daily routine and getting into a new environment has positive impact on children and older people 

Successful IGL programmes involve shared activities such as art, music, drama, gardening and story-telling. It can take place in co-operation between a pre-school/primary school and a nursing home/day centre. Shared spaces such as libraries, community/youth settings or community gardens also offer good possibilities for IGL.

What are the benefits of IGL?

A change from their daily routine and getting into a new environment has positive impact on children, older people and staff. Furthermore, both groups become more visible to each other and in their communities. A recurring idea from our research is the extent to which young children brought joy and energy to the lives of older people, especially in care settings. Children contributed by their presence, qualities and openness to relationships and learning.

Young children’s developing awareness of difference, empathy and tolerance was noted This aspect is interesting in relation to the development of educational programmes to promote empathy in schools and highlights the importance of emotional intelligence.

Intergenerational Learning can make an important contribution to bridging the gap between different age and social groups in society

IGL is an innovative approach to learning and promotes life-long and life-wide learning. Children and older people become more active in their own learning through planning and reviewing the activities. IGL programmes provide an opportunity for older people to pass on skills and to be positive role models. The idea of the "social grandparent" enables older people to give attention and encouragement to children (to whom they are not related), for example through the art of conversation. IGL programmes also expand social networks which benefits not only older people but also parents of young children who can become more connected to other groups in the locality.

Having fun while learning without the pressure to ‘pass or fail’ is the philosophy of IGL regardless of what activity is chosen. David Brophy’s Choir of Ages is an example of an ambitious IGL programme that appeared to bring joy to all participants.

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David Brophy's Choir Of Ages "Fix You"

How can IGL be further developed?

While IGL involving older adults and young children is an undeveloped area in Ireland, there are examples of inspiring IGL practices which are local and feasible. Opportunities for IGL abound on one’s doorsteps especially for those working with children or involved with older adults’ care centres and clubs.

The first step is to spread the word about the value of IGL programmes. The TOY project has developed an online course, Together Old and Young: An Intergenerational Approach for people wishing to develop intergenerational learning. This course was piloted by learners in five countries including Ireland and will be offered for the first time as a free online course in October 2018.

Intergenerational Learning can make an important contribution to bridging the gap between different age and social groups in society. When planned in an inclusive and respectful way, it is indeed a win-win situation for children and older adults.

Dr Carmel Gallagher is a lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Languages, Law & Social Sciences at TU DublinAnne Fitzpatrick is a lecturer in Early Childhood Education in the School of Languages, Law & Social Sciences at TU Dublin

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ