Intergenerational Learning: A Way for Everyone to Shine
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, September/October 2023 Issue
By Martha Beach
For the past nine years, Grade 6 students in Saskatoon, SK, have applied for one of 25 coveted spots in a special year-long program that sees them learning and growing with elders on a daily basis. This unique experience, called iGen, focuses on building intergenerational relationships; selected students will spend the entire school year in the iGen classroom, which is located in Sherbrooke Community Centre, a long-term care facility.
This exact program, delivered by teachers in partnership with Sherbrooke staff, seniors, and volunteers, is one-of-a-kind in Canada. However, the benefits of seniors and students connecting with each other is widespread. Whether through intergenerational co-housing, seniors volunteering in schools, or students volunteering in community care homes, socialization between older and younger generations benefits everyone involved.
A Sense of Responsibility
In iGen’s case, the age range of 11–12 years is the perfect time for students to get started.
“Grade 6 students are often empathetic, open-minded, and caring enough to build relationships, but independent enough to do the work that needs to get done,” says Keri Albert, lead teacher of the program.
On top of providing housing for over 250 residents, the Sherbrooke facility also offers day programming for elders in the surrounding communities, and iGen students help out with whatever is needed. This could be simply offering assistance to residents who need help moving around the centre, or pitching in to garden with an elder. Other tasks are less typical: the facility has a lot of animals, so students are often involved in pet care.
In many cases, the immediate benefits for the seniors are perhaps more obvious. “But it’s important to [also] see [the] benefit[s] for the kids, not only the elder,” Albert says. The students develop a sense of responsibility, hands-on skills, or even some physical strength through their efforts.
Besides helping elders, intergenerational learning can also provide a plethora of curriculum connections, along with opportunities for student-led inquiry projects that can be shared with seniors. For example, at Sherbrooke, students can create artwork with elders in the facility’s art studio, or learn more about Indigenous topics by conversing with Sherbrooke’s Indigenous Elders. Fun-filled projects like building board games or small-scale architecture also make good elder-student partner activities.
Other curriculum targets can be met through discussion and personal reflection. A simple conversation with a senior about their work experience provides an opportunity for students to gain career knowledge.
For students in the iGen program, they see first-hand what long-term care requires, what is involved in the day-to-day—something that is usually separated from kids in our society. So, by simply spending time in a long-term care residence, the teacher can open up conversations about aging, medical conditions, and health sciences.
Making Connections, Sharing Knowledge
Of course, it is easy to see how things like responsibility, life skills, and hitting all the curriculum targets are important. But one of the biggest benefits of intergenerational socialization is the connections kids make with the elders. Students not only develop new friendships, but they also get the rare opportunity to gain insight, perspective, and the wisdom of life lessons learned through decades of experience.
That chance to share with a different generation is often a motivating factor for elder-student interaction. Case in point: the Seniors for Kids Society is a volunteer program where seniors go into schools to work one-on-one with a student. Based in the Chochrane, AB, area, Seniors for Kids facilitates 13 weekly programs of intergenerational connection.
“Some seniors have grandkids, some don’t. But they all want to give back to the younger generation and have an opportunity to share knowledge,” says Lynn Noble, the program’s coordinator.
The volunteering seniors, known as “school grandparents,” apply and submit a background check. They can choose the elementary or high school level, and then are matched with a student. Once a week, they meet with their partner at the school. The pair might work on a craft or project, or simply play board games.
“The activities are organized by the school’s coordinator, so [the volunteers] just show up and have fun,” says Noble. “Our volunteer retention rate is very high—many have been with the program for ten years.”
Seniors for Kids has two other weekly programs where students volunteer at a care centre or a seniors’ community centre. Activities range from group gardening and bingo to student-led tech classes or senior-led cooking classes.
These programs all provide opportunities for seniors to tell their stories and for students to learn from first-hand sources. “One World War II veteran brought his two war medals,” Noble adds. “That was really something!”
As they learn and grow from members of a different generation, students also improve their social skills and build up their self-esteem.
“One thing all students report is having gained a certain level of confidence during this experience,” say iGen’s Keri Albert. “They could safely leave their environment and meet new people and do things outside their comfort zone, and it all turned out okay.”
She also notes that, “Parents say the child who starts in September is very different than the kid who leaves in June. They experience inner growth.”
A lot of that growth comes down to connection through various forms of communication, which is not always easy to get a handle on. Eric Anderson, communications leader for Sherbrooke Community Centre, notes that about 60 to 75 percent of residents at Sherbrooke have a cognitive challenge, like dementia or recovering from a stroke. Over time, the students learn all their different communication styles.
“It takes time and effort and focus,” says Anderson, “But the kids make it look easy!”
And at the end of the day, that’s what intergenerational learning is all about: “Finding ways the kids can shine, [as well as] ways the elders can share and shine,” Albert says. She tries to see each interaction as an opportunity for growth. “If you’re non-verbal… or if you’re a ten-year-old who is so shy [you] don’t know what to say to a stranger, everybody has a way to shine.”
Students and seniors can share so much with each other, often without meaning to in the first place. The residents enjoy “having a younger generation around… to share stories and life experience [with],” says Anderson. “It’s amazing the amount of energy and spontaneity the kids bring.”
As for the kids themselves, an intergenerational learning program can be a beneficial way to meet their social-emotional needs (especially for those students who don’t have grandparents nearby). As Noble explains, “We hear from some kids who may struggle academically, but they are sure to show up to school on ‘Seniors for Kids day.’ That attention and connection [the seniors bring] is really something special.”
Albert agrees. From a facilitator’s viewpoint, the results and relationships she’s witnessed have been well worth the effort. “If you want to renew your passion and faith in education, do intergenerational work,” she says. “It’s the most powerful, gratifying, and rewarding thing to experience. I’ve learned so much as a teacher, and as a human being.”
Here are a few examples of the many curriculum targets that an intergenerational program can hit.
- Career Education: Learn about the wide range of career opportunities at a long-term care home or community centre, from nursing and personal support to administration.
- Science (Biodiversity): Get outside for a walk, picnic, or gardening activity with seniors. Learn about the plants and wildlife in the area.
- History: With elders, students research a topic and create a project or report. Research learning can go both ways—seniors can share traditional research skills and knowledge or stories, while students can share tech-focused research skills.
- Reading, Writing, and Language: There are many opportunities for group discussion, individual speech-writing and presentation, personal journal entries or reflections. You could also create a spelling bee with seniors’ involvement, have elders read curriculum-required novels to students, or vice versa.
For tips on how to start your own program, check out Welcome to iGen, a podcast by Keri Albert and Eric Anderson.
Martha Beach lives and works in Toronto as a freelance fact-checker, editor, and writer for a wide variety of publications. When she’s not working, you’ll find Martha on her yoga mat or hanging out with her daughter and husband.