The Wisdom of All Ages

Jane Hawes
Reading inside the teepee at St. Stephen's Community House.

On a blue-skied September morning, a small troop of 3- and 4-year-olds spilled out of their classroom at the Christ Child Child-Care Center in Columbus's North Linden neighborhood.

Another small troop of senior citizens eagerly waited for them in the community garden next to St. Stephen's Community House, which operates both the childcare center and a daily activity program for local seniors under the same sprawling roof. Together, they are part of a unique intergenerational program, which is a form of caregiving and education that brings young children and older adults together.

While intergenerational programming is now a growing trend in childcare and early childhood education settings - and another multi-partner intergenerational center just opened on the Near East Side - St. Stephen's has been bringing kids and seniors together since 2000.

"We do our best to pair them up since they're here at the same time," said Kristin Dillard, the director of youth and child services at St. Stephen's. "For us, it's a good opportunity and it's very beneficial for the seniors. They just light up when they see the children."

According to Generations United (GU), an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., intergenerational programs provide many benefits for children, older adults and communities at large: These include improved social skills and connections, better behavior for the children, even cost savings when matching adults with children who need help with learning.

According to a 2006 study provided by GU, "Preschool children involved in intergenerational programs had higher personal/social developmental scores (by 11 months) than preschool children involved in non-intergenerational programs."

Last month, an all-star lineup of institutions, including The Ohio State University, National Church Residences and the Columbus Early Learning Centers (CELC), launched the Champion Intergenerational Enrichment and Education Center near the site of the former Poindexter Village.

The program was seven years in the making, explained Cynthia Dougherty, the program manager, and will serve 52 children, ages 6 weeks to 5 years, and 50 older adults. The groups will come together each day for well-planned and supervised activities.

Dougherty and CELC's director Gina Ginn were excited to point out the new chairs in a multi-purpose room that will allow the children and seniors to sit at the same level ? "we always talk about the importance of getting on a child's level and here we really are," Ginn said ? but the greatest benefits, Dougherty noted, will come from the moments that simply happen "organically."

That was evident, about a week before the official opening on Dec. 9, when small groups of children and seniors were brought together to decorate a broad satin ribbon with their handprints so that it could be used at the opening ceremony. They sat around a table, taking turns pressing their paint-smeared hands on the ribbon. Four-year-old Mario was ready for his turn.

"I can do it!" he declared. He pressed his hand on the ribbon, then frowned at his hand, still covered with paint. An older woman next to him - Miss Rusty, the children called her - grabbed a wipe and showed him how she cleaned the paint off her hand.

"See?" she said. "It wipes right off," and he followed her example. As the hand printing continued, a conversation about cats and dogs and who had some at home and even who had pets that had died broke out. When the session was finished, the two groups got up to head in different directions.

"See you at lunch!" Miss Rusty called to the children.

Back at St. Stephen's, earlier this fall, the seniors welcomed the children, as they sat on benches in the garden. Some invited the children to sit with them, while others took children by the hand and wandered through the tomato and pepper plants, still ripening on the vines.

"Oh, all the strawberries are gone," said one woman to a child, who had squatted down to examine the strawberry vines. "They picked them all."

Dillard said the seniors tend to have a very calming effect on the children.

"They raised their own children and grandchildren," Dillard said and that's evident as the group assembled for the next activity - a visit to the "fish farm," also part of the St. Stephen's campus. The Project Aquastar program raises tilapia fish in long, narrow "water beds" inside a greenhouse structure. As director Henry Pettigrew drew the fish out of the water in a net, the seniors let out a collective "Whoo!" while the children breathed, "Ahhh!" It was an excitable moment, but the children hung onto the hands of the seniors and stayed put, even when they were splashed by the flopping fish.

"It's OK, Francis," said one woman to her little partner. "It's just a little water."

Shannon Jarrott is a professor in OSU's College of Social Work and will be visiting the Champion Intergenerational Center with students and for her own research. While she is excited about the rich observations and data to be gleaned from a program like this, she is equally excited about the benefits it promises to yield for its participants.

"The research shows that the best people to teach children about life are the older adults who have lived it," Jarrott said, explaining that the seniors role model good behavior, aid in reading and learning, and provide the one-on-one attention that also minimizes misbehavior.

And the seniors also, she added, are "very happy to serve in that way. You literally see them perk up when they see the children."

At its core, Jarrott said, "intergenerational programming is about building relationships."

The children and seniors at St. Stephen's had one more special activity to share that morning. The campus also features a towering teepee. Inside the heavy canvas walls, on a wood-board floor, is a circle of chairs. After selecting picture books to read, the group settled down in seats, one or two children to each senior, and the happy hum of reading out loud began.

"You are a smart girl to know all your colors!" exclaimed one woman to the little girl sitting with her. The girl beamed with pride, snuggled a little closer to her older friend, and they continued reading.