The young and old learning together
Tuesday, June 27, 2023
Chester-based Nursery in Belong is one of a handful of UK early years settings pioneering an intergenerational approach to learning. Nicole Weinstein spoke to staff, children and older people.
Ian Wheelton, 83, is surrounded by two-year-olds, dancing and clapping their hands as he sings Happiness by Ken Dodd at Belong care village's intergenerational choir session. “It's one of their favourites,” says the former semi-professional singer, before breaking into a jaunty rendition of Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.
Ian is one of 58 residents that live in the state-of-the-art care village in the heart of the city of Chester. Overlooking a historic canal on the site of a former disused warehouse, the village is one of the first settings in the UK to offer fully integrated intergenerational care.
The pioneering project is the result of a partnership between charity Ready Generations, which runs the onsite children's day nursery, and dementia specialist care provider Belong, which operates seven care villages in the North West.
“Together we are researching best practice in intergenerational care, through the model of ‘living together’,” explains Ready Generations co-founder Sue Egersdorff, who has worked in early years for more than 35 years.
The Nursery in Belong builds on the work of Apples and Honey Nightingale, the UK's first intergenerational nursery, which opened on the grounds of a care home in London in 2017.
“Belong is an extension of this,” explains Ready Generations co-founder Liz Ludden, owner of Dukes and Duchesses Day Nursery in Liverpool. “Residents live in the same building as the nursery and they eat, play and live alongside the children on a daily basis. It operates like a neighbourhood, with planned intergenerational experiences taking place alongside spontaneous interactions.”
A typical day starts with a musical or storytelling session for children and the older people, followed by lunch in the onsite bistro where the children and their “grand friends” talk and eat alongside each other. After a lunchtime nap, the children might visit the residents in their households to drop off some post, do some baking or check on the seedlings that are growing on the balcony.
Alan Hyde and his wife Diana, who has dementia, visit the nursery most days, often taking their pet budgie. Alan says the nursery has “brought the joy back into their lives” while 87-year-old Dorothy Hulford, a representative on the nursery advisory board, says the children “keep them going”.
For 82-year-old June Davis, a retired primary school teacher, it is the “chance interactions” that bring joy, explains her daughter Alison, as one of the children walks past shouting: “Hello, June.”
June is one of a host of residents who volunteer to read with the children, run baking sessions, be involved in arts and crafts or take part in weekly “prambles”, where they take children for a canal-side walk in their prams.
Intergenerational practice lead Sophie Mckeon, who acts as the go-between for the residents and the nursery, says that being around the children “improves the residents' moods”. “It brings out their caring nature and they enjoy feeling needed again,” she says. “Even those who were sceptical at first, miss the children when they're not around and refer to them as their ‘family’.”
The idea of a fully integrated intergenerational nursery was born eight years ago, after Belong invited early years experts Egersdorff and Ludden to be involved in designing and developing an onsite nursery in its £21m state-of-the-art care village.
The nursery, located on the ground floor of the four-storey building, has a modern, open-plan playroom leading onto the nursery garden, and a smaller room with a reading den where children go for naps.
Much of the rich interaction takes place in the shared spaces. Outdoors, a specially-commissioned steel fence with three interwoven stained glass windows separates the nursery garden from the shared garden. Here four-year-old Julian shows off vegetables he planted with 87-year-old Bill Wall, or “our Bill” as he affectionately refers to him.
Bill's eyes light up with pride as he watches Julian. Pointing to his room, just above the nursery, he jokes that he can hear the children's laughter – and screaming – “all day long”. “It doesn't annoy me,” he says. “A bit of noise is a small price to pay for the joy they bring.”
Nursery manager, Ruth Sandbach, is getting the prams ready for the pramble. “The idea came from a resident who used to go on rambles,” she says. “It links with early learning goals, which involve expanding children's knowledge of the wider world.”
On the ground floor of the care setting there is a creative studio for joint art and craft activities, a garden room where children and their grand friends play games together, a small library area where the elders can read to the children and a staff training room.
The residents live on the floors above, which contain 23 apartments for those who can live independently, and six 12-bedroom “households” with 24-hour support for those with mobility issues, dementia or conditions like Parkinson's.
“All residents have the option to be involved in the intergenerational programme, regardless of the level of care they need,” explains Egersdorff.
Nursery staff have completed a diploma in intergenerational care with charity and training provider Generations Working Together and had training in dementia, but residents with additional needs are accompanied to the planned intergenerational sessions by their carers.
“Children see residents that are frail, in wheelchairs and with oxygen tubes,” Ludden says. “They might ask questions, but they're not fazed by it.”
Richard O'Neill, who runs interactive intergenerational storytelling sessions, says “the most wonderful things happen at Belong”. “If a person with dementia or a child randomly shouts something out, we include it in the story, and it becomes brilliantly full of life,” he says. “You can see older adults' posture and energy changing as a child takes hold of their hand or engages with them. They lose all feelings of invisibility.”
Nursery practitioner, Charlotte Worthington, says children's behaviour also changes when they are around their older friends. “One of the little girls speaks so softly, while a more boisterous boy completely settles down,” she says. “They're learning foundation skills for life: how to be respectful, empathetic, loving and affectionate. There's so much interaction and they're developing their language skills faster. It's magical.”
Egersdorff embarked on the nursery project with the aim of creating a new model of care that combines health and education. “It's more dynamic and importantly, it's evidence-based,” she says.
There are challenges in bringing young and old together – not least the need for more staff and supervision. Egersdorff and Ludden are both on site each day on a voluntary basis to support lead facilitator Mckeon to keep things running smoothly.
Ludden admits it has not been easy bringing together two sectors to work in a way that “pushes boundaries”.
“There are daily challenges around infection control and timing of planned events but slowing everything down has resulted in better quality interactions, and we're sensible when it comes to viruses,” she adds.
As the project develops, Ready Generations is moving away from intergenerational practice and into “community capacity building”, Egersdorff explains.
“Families of residents and families of children are starting to connect,” she says. “Many children don't have grandparents nearby and their parents have actively sought us out for our 1950s-style playgroup model of childcare, run by people who care for their community.”
Francesca Roberts, mother to 15-month-old son Oscar* says: “We wanted Oscar to be part of a wider community and to gain from the life experiences of the older people. They say it takes a tribe to bring up a child and Belong is one big family home.”
Ian Wheelton – who lives with his wife in one of the apartments – certainly feels at home. “I've seen a lot of life. But now I'm at my garden of Eden,” he says.
FACTFILE: NURSERY IN BELONG
What is it? A fully integrated intergenerational children's day nursery set within Belong's £21m state-of-the-art care village in Chester.
How long has it been running? Opened in July 2022, following six years of planning.
Who runs it? Ready Generations, a charity that promotes intergenerational practice founded by early years experts Sue Egersdorff and Liz Ludden.
How is it funded? By fee-paying parents, fundraising activities and academic research grants from universities.
How much do the intergenerational experiences cost? The nursery has spent £15,000 on intergenerational experiences, including setting up a choir, creative dance and storytelling sessions, drums, double buggies and building blocks.
Opening hours? Registered to open six days a week, Monday to Saturday, from 7.30am to 6pm for 51 weeks a year. It is currently open Monday to Friday.
How many children attend? Registered for 25 birth- to five-year-olds with 43 children currently on roll, attending on a full- or part-time basis.
How many older people take part? About 50 at the moment – 85 per cent of residents are with the children two or three times a week, 10 per cent are too unwell and one or two residents have made a conscious decision to not engage. The care village can accommodate 118 residents but is not yet at full capacity.
How many staff? One manager, one deputy manager, one senior early years educator and special educational needs co-ordinator, three early years educators, one housekeeper and one intergenerational lead.
Why we need a new model for building communities
By Sue Egersdorff, co-founder, Ready Generations
“My best friend is Bill – come and play with us,” says Jacob aged three. I look over to see Bill with his head in a box of blocks. Bill is 87 years old and a much-loved and respected member of our intergenerational community. He spends significant parts of his day with our nursery children and we see him as, not only a friend, but an important mentor and educator.
Through our charity, Ready Generations, co-founder Liz Ludden and I are fixated on learning more about the potential of intergenerational practice as an authentically human model of inclusive learning and community development. We have both become weary with traditional service delivery models that act transactionally, pushing people into prescribed directions according to perceived need – such as age, ability and gender – and creating entrenched silos which seem only to add to division and marginalisation.
In unexpected ways, the pandemic has made people think more deeply about relationships and what really matters in terms of belonging, caring, nurturing and learning. People have revisited community structures that appeared to have been lost to a time when community was based around geographical location, family, kinship and employment. Such structures allowed for reciprocity in terms of care for children, the frail and elderly. They put individual strengths and capabilities to good use for the benefit of everyone. People understood their responsibilities and were accountable and active in their contributions.
We believe in such strength-based approaches where shared understandings and solidarity matter. Everyone has a gift, passion or unique interest to share. As early years teachers, we are constantly talking about the uniqueness of each child and the importance of child-centred practice. What we have experienced, since the opening of our intergenerational nursery, is the unique teaching power and potential offered by our elders when they feel respected and invited to join in. Increasingly marginalised, hidden and at worst vilified for costing too much in mainstream circles, our elders have been nothing but an immensely rich and free teaching and learning resource to us. They have the qualities of the best educators – patience, active listening, empathy, engagement and passion for the wellbeing of future generations. As many might wrongly assume, they are not stuck in the past but activists for a sustainable world.
We have learned so much from them. They have supported, challenged and kept us focused on our vision for a resilient learning community of all ages. They have acted with integrity, wisdom and compassion in supporting educational improvement and effective learning. Above all, they have strengthened our resolve to invite early years settings, schools, youth services, community groups, local authorities and housing associations to reflect on how services are provided, who is seen to be in charge, who actually leads and provides a framework for learning that is both effective and aspirational.
Transformational change involves intentionally pushing at the boundaries, sharing control, doing more, talking less, being brave and taking risks. For example, we were told it was inconceivable to integrate a nursery and care facility because of issues like safeguarding and infection control. While these take sensitive and ongoing discussion, with the development of robust structured systems and shared processes they have been safely managed and not restricted progress in any way.
It seems that for our most marginalised communities little is improving. Negative language is used to describe many such communities and we appear surprised at the growing impact and cost of an ageing population. The government's introduction of family hubs is to be welcomed but could be described as bureaucratic, prescriptive and obsessive about the delivery of services to a community in a “power over” rather than “power to” model. Through our intergenerational models, we have witnessed life-changing impacts for children, young people, elders and their families by adopting interdependent, human ecosystem frameworks where interdependency is valued, people are listened to and skills are recognised and utilised for the benefit of everyone. We believe ordinary people, in ordinary communities can do extraordinary things by coming together, embracing all aspects of difference and diversity and combining their gifts.
UK STUDY ON BENEFITS OF INTERGENERATIONAL WORK
The Nursery in Belong is one of four settings taking part in a UK study looking at the benefits of bringing young and old together for shared learning experiences.
Ready Generations' Born4Life project is working with academics from the University of Stirling and Northumbria University to find out what an “intentional, meaningful, and sustainable” intergenerational community looks like, and what training and development requirements are needed for the intergenerational team.
Surveys, focus groups and interviews were held with practitioners involved in intergenerational programmes at Childsplay Nursery in Newcastle, Dukes and Duchesses in Liverpool, the Kindergarten at the University of Stirling and the Nursery in Belong.
“We're looking at what's happening already which works,” explains research lead Dr Kay Heslop, department head of education at Northumbria University.
“Despite growing evidence of the positive impact on both pre-schoolers and older adults, the implementation of intergenerational programmes across UK nurseries is rare, inconsistent, and not necessarily research-informed.
“It's not about tokenistic intergenerational activity. It's about identifying the interests and needs of older adults and children and coming up with sustainable action plans to embed them into practice.”
Born4life: creating and supporting meaningful, authentic intergenerational experiences, funded by Northumbria University, is due to be published in the Journal of Intergenerational Relationships later this year.