Exploring The Benefits Of Intergenerational Programs



ONEgeneration, one of many intergenerational childcare centers that have been spurting up across the country, focuses on creating high quality interactions among adults and children during the early development stages of childhood.

When Dr. Kristine Varanyan arrives at work every morning, there walks her son in tow. Upon entering, they go their separate ways: Eliaz off to his classroom and Varanyan to her office. For almost two years now, Varanyan has served as the Director of ONEgeneration Childcare and her son has attended as a student. In this short time, she has noticed a change in him. He has grown in understanding of diversity, recognizing “different” as a standard. He exhibits a new childlike empathy that has been fostered by the program. This is because ONEgeneration is unlike traditional childcare settings; it is a place where both children and adults attend and interact together.

The program is one of many intergenerational childcare centers that have been spurting up across the country. It focuses on creating high quality interactions among adults and children during the early development stages of childhood. The program centers around fostering skills such as building healthy relationships, respect for others and oneself, autonomy, and peaceful conflict resolution in a nurturing, diverse environment.

The program at ONEgeneration began years ago as a childcare/preschool center and an adult daycare, functioning independently of one another. But on one rainy day, when the children were cooped up inside and growing antsy, a staff member decided to bring the little ones over to the adult side; maybe they could read a book together, she thought. After the initial interaction, it was clear that this concept needed to be integrated. The adults and the children formed a unique bond, uncommon to those seen within a traditional childcare setting. Since the incorporation, the program at ONEgeneration has flourished.

Those who attend the adult side, lovingly referred to as neighbors, often suffer from cognitive dysfunctions such as Alzheimer’s or dementia. Many rely on assistive devices such as wheelchairs, canes, or hearing aids. Like the children, they come for the day and spend time in the company of others surrounded by staff who can assist them and engage. Each childcare and preschool class spends half an hour with the neighbors daily, participating in planned activities such as cooking, music and movement, science, and outdoor volleyball. Through these daily activities, the children and neighbors form close connections over time. Children who are more social often bond immediately with the neighbors, while others who are a more shy and hesitant take a little more time to observe and understand the situation first. Varanyan notes that over time though, each student tends to find his or her special place within the program.

There are other programs like ONEgeneration that have been popping up across the country. A notable one in Washington State, Providence Mount St. Vincent, is considered a leader in the field. Originally functioning as retirement home, the leaders felt as though it lacked the joy and energy that only a child can bring. Now over 20 years later, the program boasts 125 children making up six classrooms within the facility. Activities are designed and planned prior, but adults have the freedom to visit and interact with the children throughout the day. Another  program, the Generations Development Center in San Francisco, specifically aims to foster a multicultural and bilingual atmosphere while encouraging positive attitudes toward aging through their intergeneration setting. Beyond California, there are programs spanning to the East Coast, each creating a unique and diverse atmosphere for students to grow.

Parents occasionally have concerns surrounding this untraditional approach to early childhood education, but the vast benefits have been noted as more people research the concept. In a 2008 exploratory study of intergenerational preschool, Femia et al., interviewed children ages six to eight who previously attended an intergenerational program and children who attended a traditional single generation program and outlined the benefits. After conducting individual interviews with the children and mail surveys with their teachers, they discovered children from intergenerational programs displayed greater social acceptance, ability to empathize for the elderly, and the capacity to self-regulate their behavior. Many children also displayed slightly higher positive attitudes overall. While the benefits of the intergenerational programs are often noticed in a child during their time enrolled in the program, it is clear that these positive effects have the ability to continue well after.

Varanyan has seen the same change in her child. Prior to enrolling in the program, her son, like any other curious and inquisitive child, often questioned his mother when he saw others who appeared different. He was  unaccustomed to seeing an elderly man in a wheelchair or a woman caring around an oxygen tank. Like many children, he didn’t understand their situation, but now it has become something he sees regularly. Through this he has developed a sense of empathy and a greater understanding of diversity. While this form of early childhood education may not be for every child, it is increasingly becoming an available and welcome option for families to consider.

Claire Mena is an Engagement and Outreach Specialist at Genetic Alliance. She previously worked in breaking news and now focuses on the relationship between health care and enhancing patient-centered information. You can find her @clairemelise

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