Inspirational, Intergenerational Play in Blackheath

intergenerational play at Blackheath

Maggie Mackenzie with Blue Gum preschoolers (Hamish Dunlop)

Story and photos by Hamish Dunlop

Intergenerational play is creating connection, changing lives and inspiring young and old in Blackheath. Hamish Dunlop visited a play session to experience the fun and joy that intergenerational play brings to all involved.

Key Points:

  • Many young children are not in contact with their grandparents or other old people, and many older people have little or no contact with kids.
  • Intergenerational play brings young and old together with many benefits for all.
  • An intergenerational play program co-ordinated by Blackheath Area Neighbourhood Centre (BANC) proved to be a great success.

It’s a rainy day in Blackheath, but the hall at 125 Wentworth Street is filled with colour, warmth and light. Nine older members of the Blue Mountains community have gathered for the weekly intergenerational playgroup. The space is abuzz with salutations and anticipation. News from the week is being exchanged and expectations are piqued.

It’s not long before the wind-assisted doors open and preschool children flood inside. They’ve come from two places in Blackheath: Kookaburra Kindergarten and Blue Gum Montessori Preschool. Raincoats are quickly dispensed with. The children flow excitedly into the space, heading for their favourite activity table, or favourite older person.

The shared enthusiasm swells in the hall. Playdough is a hit, but so is the spontaneous making of stories with native animal hand puppets. Colourful, sparkly beads are being strung on another table. There is a doctor using a stethoscope to check the health of his much older friend. Faces are lit – old and young.

intergenerational play

Jane Ferris with a Blue Gum preschooler (left) and Marcus from Kookaburra Kindy (Hamish Dunlop)

It’s amazing to watch the human interactions unfold and it quickly becomes clear why intergenerational play is such a powerful and life-affirming process for everyone involved.

Intergenerational play for children

There’s increasing interest in intergenerational play. There are researched benefits for both children and older people. These range from helping with depression and conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, to building empathy and tolerance, fostering creativity, developing communication skills and creating social cohesion.

The concept was brought into the public’s consciousness by the ABC’s Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds series. There have been two seasons. The first aired in 2019 and is situated in a retirement home. Residents and pre-school aged children spend time together playing games and participating in activities. The second season sees older people going into a specially designed preschool space.

Preschool Director Kathy Garland from Blue Gum Montessori Preschool had seen the ABC series. “When Blackheath Area Neighbourhood Centre (BANC) contacted us, we thought it was a great idea. Most of us had watched the ABC show. We’d seen how valuable it was for both older and younger generations.”

“Children don’t necessarily have close contact with their grandparents,” Kathy says. Learning to build relationships with older people and have fun together, especially on a week-to-week basis, is a great opportunity for growth. The kids are developing social skills and empathy, and differences like age, appearance, and disability are being normalised. One of the older people is in a wheelchair. The kids love pushing her around.”

Kerrie Lovegrove, the Director at Kookaburra Kindergarten agrees. She also thinks intergenerational play provides opportunities for the children they can’t get at school.

“In a classroom, the ratio of adults to children is quite different. One of the great elements of this program is the one-to-one contact time. It’s validating for the children to have someone so engaged with them for an extended period. The older people can bring their experience and skills to bear too. The play is uninhibited and non-judgmental. It’s life-affirming for everyone.”

Lilijana Gibson with Abby from Blue Gum Montessori Preschool

Lilijana Gibson with a preschooler from Blue Gum. (Hamish Dunlop)

One of the benefits of the intergenerational play model is the way it supports neurodiversity and difference, Kerrie explains. “There’s one child who comes here who always stays close to me, particularly at school. When he comes here, we play together at the beginning, but then off he goes. This is a great indication of how the environment fosters growth and exploration across the board.”

Rambly play

Siobhan Jenner is one of the adult participants. She says it’s exciting when you have moments of engagement with one of the children. “It’s amazing how focused the kids can be. But it’s still rambly play. They can look around and join wherever they feel like it – just have a go at something that looks fun. It’s lovely to watch how delighted they are with what they create.”

Siobhan says sometimes the carers come around and say, ‘well, he doesn’t usually do that.’ “It’s an ego boost. I just love observing how different the children are and how differently they’re all interacting. I like seeing the shy ones become more confident in their achievements. It’s really a beautiful thing.”

“It’s pretty uplifting isn’t it, Gabriel?” Siobhan says. Gabriel Byrne beams. “After I’ve been here each week, I go home happy. It stays with me for the whole week!” she says. “I think, wow, wasn’t that delightful, wasn’t that fun.”

Playing the gorilla game in the intergenerational play session

Playing the gorilla game in the second half of the session. (Hamish Dunlop)

Jane Ferris says she’s really glad she signed up. She had a career in special education and wanted to get involved with kids again. “I moved up to Blackheath three years ago. I wanted to get more involved with the community, to live in a village with a community feel. I’ve got a busy life, but when I get here, I absolutely love it. I can see the kids love it too.”

Her experience as a teacher means Jane is skilled at getting the best out of children. “One of the things I bring along to the sessions is puppets,” she says. “They’re great facilitators of free play and personal exploration. But there’s huge value for all the interactions the kids have with the adults here. It fosters an appreciation for others and differences between people.”

Jane thinks there is real benefit to learning and playing outside the family and school context. “There is something about this environment that enables the children to integrate on their own level. The teachers and carers are around of course and are aware of what’s going on. They can help when needed, but it’s a more hands-off approach.”

Maggie McKenzie says one of the reasons she signed up was because she doesn’t have children or grandchildren. “I’ve had some extraordinary interactions with the children,” she effuses. “To be down on the floor with the little ones is magical.” With a background in theatre and a strong sense of childhood play, Maggie loves the free-running stories the children create.

“One of my best experiences was playing doctors with a little boy. He had such concentration! He put his surgery implements back in their place, looked at my sore finger and checked my heart with his stethoscope. A girl came to help and did some bandaging. We were in that game for about 15 minutes, which was amazing.”

intergenerational play in the blue mountains

Bronwen Stinson receiving her end-of-sessions gift bag from Nyah from Kookaburra and a Blue Gum preschooler (Hamish Dunlop)

Jane Hamilton is a yoga teacher. She’s brought this skill to the intergenerational sessions.  “My experience has been wonderful! I’ve loved it. I’ve met parents who would really like their children to have the experience. The grandparents are not nearby. Many of them have seen the ABC program and know how amazing bringing young and older people together is.”

Jane thinks the variety of older people and their different skills and experience makes the sessions rich. “Some people are great at craft while others can do interactive storytelling. We get to do what we’re good at, or interested in, and so do the kids. Our joy gets transferred to the kids and their joy gets transferred to us – it’s always two ways. The kids just bound through the door at the beginning all smiles. We’re all just together here. Everyone open, everyone in flow.”

Intergenerational play for older adults

Hannah Surtees has coordinated the project for BANC. She says the impact on the older people is profound. “Being older in many cases is concurrent with smaller social circles and less people contact. Some people also live alone. Coming here is not the same as having a cup of coffee with a friend. It’s an incredibly non-judgmental environment where the only social requirement is to have fun. Everyone gets to be in the moment, which I think as adults we forget about sometimes.”

“It’s beautiful watching the older people’s sense of fun and play ignite. I think it provides a purpose too. One lady told me she sets her alarm for the next morning, but is so worried about missing the session she barely sleeps a wink. We’ve been gathering data through feedback forms too about how the sessions have changed people’s lives. Everyone agrees it’s a hugely positive experience. For some, there’s been a marked improvement in quality of life.”

Hannah Surtees and Jo Davies from BANC

Hannah and Jo Davies from BANC. (Hamish Dunlop)

Building on solid ground

Hannah worked closely with Jo Davies at BANC in the delivery of the program. Jo was responsible for securing the grant from Nepean Blue Mountains Primary Health Network (NBMPHN). The NBMPHN funds intergenerational programs designed to support older adults to live at home for longer. This is facilitated by improving their social and physical wellbeing through activities that foster meaningful engagement between the generations.

With the program’s overwhelming success, the question is, ‘what comes next?’ Jo says the next iteration is older people going into the preschool setting. Quite how this will happen is currently under discussion.

“Everyone can see how powerful the process of bringing together younger and older people is,” Jo says. “We’re all committed to working out how to build on all the incredible success of the program that supports individuals and creates a closer knit community.”

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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

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About Hamish Dunlop

Hamish Dunlop is a writer, visual artist and environmentalist. During his career he has worked in communications, as an academic at UNSW and ACU and more recently in the conservation space. He is currently completing a Diploma in Conservation and Ecosystems Management. He lives on the bush in Medlow Bath and is a passionate bush walker, gardener and cold-water enthusiast.

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