Early observations from the groups
While no formal data has been analysed yet, the learning program component Dr Cartmel has been involved in has already made some interesting discoveries.
"We've been looking at which experiences or learning activities offer the most engagement for each group," says Dr Cartmel, noting that the Early Years Learning Framework commonly used in childcare centres has formed much of the study’s educational basis.
Researchers have been experimenting with a number of possibilities including lots of music, dance, singing, arts, crafts, and telling of stories.
"We've noticed that music and rhythm activities have really been important," she says.
"We’ve also had better engagement where an activity involves a lot of freedom for both participants: they choose what they do rather than completing something like a craft activity that has been selected for them," Dr Cartmel says.
In many cases, keeping things simple seems to be most effective.
“If the activities require really complex cognitive skills they haven't been as well received, unless there's a really obvious and immediate outcome that both the young and older participant can see," Dr Cartmel says.
What doesn't work has also been important to researchers, as this information will help organisations interested in intergenerational experiences tailor activities to best effect.
"We've had some services we’ve worked with who have already changed the way they engage with their elderly community. One group used to have the children visit and 'perform' for their aged care residents. Now they have changed the strategy so that the visits are more relationship based and intentional," Dr Cartmel says.
It is this building of relationships that has been an obvious success story for the children participating in intergenerational activities.
“We've seen some really strong relationships develop in as little as four weeks – I would have thought it would take longer than that," Dr Cartmel says.
When Dr Cartmel spoke to children who had participated in the project’s 16-week trial, one of her greatest observations was the joy that each group got out of it.
"The generations really enjoy each other's company. The opportunity to develop a purposeful relationship has been important. Each has been prepared to spend the time together," she says.
Practical advantages of intergenerational playgroups
While Fiona May at Playgroup Australia agrees that the intergenerational playgroups she has sat in on have been "delightful experiences" where it was obvious all involved really valued the opportunity, she also sees additional benefits for the children participating.
"One of the nice things about intergenerational playgroups is that elderly residents often don't move around a lot, so the children are able to control who they approach and how," she says.
There are also some purely practical advantages from the perspective of parents of young children.
"Aged care facilities are already very safe environments where everything is very carefully managed, for example fences or doors can't easily open. One mother of twins commented to me that it was so safe for her children to play in this environment," Fiona says, noting that playgroups sometimes struggle to find venues that are safe and affordable, making aged care facilities a wonderful opportunity for playgroup organisers.
“We would love to see more of it,” Fiona says.