You’re Never Too Old To Play: Intergenerational Learning Programs

What is Intergenerational Learning?

Intergenerational learning is not a new concept. In fact, the informal ‘passing down’ of culture and knowledge between the eldest and youngest members of families goes back further than documented history. In some cultures, the relationships between elders and children remain as strong today as they always have, but it’s not always the case.

“An intergenerational Program is a planned intentional interaction of different age groups, infant to elderly, in a variety of situations at a level that provides close communication, sharing of feelings and ideas and co-operative activity in meaningful tasks.”

— Peacock and Talley, Intergenerational Contact: A way to Counteract Ageism 1984

In the United States, formal intergenerational programs have been operating since 1965 – when the Foster Grandparent Program started, aimed at reducing social isolation for the elderly and providing volunteer tutors for students. The programs worked, with improved self-image and academic gains.

Now, jump forward to today, where in the developed world, the percentage of the population aged 65 and over is increasing at unparalleled rates.

At the same time, constantly evolving global families mean children often grow up far from grandparents. Also, parents and grandparents are working increased hours until later in life and both children and the aged are spending more time being cared for out of the home.

Intergenerational learning programs have never been more important as the loss of social and emotional connection between children and the elderly leaves a gap in society.

“Somehow we have to get older people back close to growing children if we are to restore a sense of community, knowledge of the past, and a sense of the future.” ~ Margaret Mead, Cultural Anthropologist

Some early childhood educators are taking steps to foster contact between non-adjacent generations, for the benefit of all. Both formal intergenerational learning programs and informal relationships between early childhood education services, older generations in families and local aged care facilities in their communities are bringing young and old together in inspiring ways.

Who Benefits from Intergenerational Learning Programs?

Research shows that when planned effectively, formal programs that promote connectedness between young and old have proven benefits not just for the children and older adults participating but more widely, for the communities involved.

In their research, Sally Newman and Alan Hatton-Yeo highlight the benefits, reciprocity and empowerment that occur in intergenerational programs run by organizations in countries including Canada, Australia, Spain, South Africa, Japan and the US.

They conclude that “older people, by their presence in communities and neighborhoods, have an essential role as educators, leaders and role models and in empowering the young”.

One study found that children who participated in an intergenerational program were “more willing to share, help and cooperate with elderly persons.”

Benefits for children include

  • Social awareness for communicating with older people
  • Positive attitudes toward aging and the elderly
  • Mentoring and positive role models
  • Someone to ‘play’ with
  • An experience of community belonging
  • Learning social skills in a nurturing environment

Inspiring Stories of Intergenerational Learning

When documentary maker Evan Briggs talks about representations of aging in society that devalue the elderly, she concludes that this can make it difficult for people to “put themselves in the shoes of someone in a different generation”.

Present Perfect is her documentary, filmed in a preschool setting in a Seattle Nursing Home.

Watching the patience with which the children interact with the residents of the nursing home shows how the teaching and learning dynamic benefits all involved.  As the children help and are helped they are acquiring what Briggs labels “generational intelligence”.

“Interacting with older adults enables youth to develop social networks, communication skills, problem-solving abilities, positive attitudes toward aging, a sense of purpose and community service.” Terry Fay: Senior

In Australia, programs like “Grandfriends” where elderly people interact with children for art and literacy aim to improve cognitive function and increase positive interactions for the aged.

In Toronto Kipling Acres has had a daycare centre co-located  in a long-term care home since the 1990s and residents, families and children all feel the benefits.


And of course, there is the wonderful kiwi film about teenagers and seniors, Hip Hop Operation.

How to Bring Inter-Generational Learning Into Your Early Learning Service

“It’s not about entertainment and it doesn’t have to be fancy… “It’s really about sitting
and interacting on a regular basis. It you’re not building relationships, your program is really not making the impact that it could.” Mary R. Windt, Executive Director, Under one Roof

Planning is essential to ensure success for any intergenerational program, whether it happens in a shared site, or involves visits to a local community aged care facility.

Why not start small?

If you’re interested in starting an intergenerational program with your local community aged care facility, contact them (or a community liaison) to discuss the children visiting. Working in partnership with the team at the facility provides important information about resident’s interests and backgrounds to encourage interaction with the children.

Visits at Easter and Christmas are common, but when children perform for the residents at special events they are not engaging in activities together. Instead, if programs are incorporated into regular routines of the children and adults it increases social connections as they interact and spend time talking and playing.

Fortnightly programs like the visits by children at Tigger’s Honeypot to a local aged care facility sees both organisations sharing resources as well as time. Children spend time with older adults both at the aged care facility and in their early childhood service surroundings – because the residents reciprocate visits to spend time playing and gardening with the children.

What Activities Work?

In their comprehensive guidelines Tried and True Generations United have ideas for activities that can be useful for setting up all kinds of intergenerational programs. Using the guidelines as a resource (and checking the list of organizations below)  can provide direction for early childhood services thinking about setting up a visiting program.

The guidelines emphasise the need to focus on process over product when planning any intergenerational program. Removing the need for defined outcomes and being flexible about where activities may lead give children and adults a chance to build relationships of discovery.


Intergenerational Learning Resources

The following resources are activity prompts early childhood educators can use in their intergenerational programs.

  • Scrap booking materials for craft session
  • Crayons and paper
  • Modelling clay/plasticine/play dough
  • Put music on and do some action songs together
  • Soft balls for children to throw back and forth
  • Plastic animals/soft toys for pretend play
  • A picnic basket with a tea set
  • Picture books
  • A basket of story books and/or photo albums
  • A story from child’s Educa portfolio (printed or on the iPad app) as a prompt for child/adult to read and discuss
  • A basket of flowers for collage
  • Bubbles
  • Puppets
  • Building blocks
  • Anything that encourages conversation and interaction

It’s the importance of play that resonates in any interactions between preschoolers and the elderly.

Modify activities to suit the interests and abilities of the participants, as well as providing resources and plenty of time for exploring and getting to know each other. As Julie Occhiuto from Tigger’s HoneyPot explains “we need to recognise our elders as having a wealth of knowledge and experience that is relevant to our lives today”.

Early Childhood Services who use Educa online portfolios are connecting children with their grandparents every day. Grandparents are using the internet more and more to keep involved in their grandchildren’s lives and for them Educa is a winner. Just ask the Nicholls family.

THANKS HEAPS for all the brilliant work you do… We as grandparents have loved being able to enjoy our little grandson’s progress via your portfolios – regular bursts of happiness!   Liz and Warren Nicholls


Find Out More –


  • Intergenerational Programs — Impact on Attitudes
  • Intergenerational learning and and the contributions of older people – S Newman, A Hatton-Yeo – Aging horizons, 2008