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  • Early Childhood
The Power of Intergenerational Learning
Sarah Lotter, Preschool 3/4 Teacher

If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”  Fred Rogers, You Are Special: Words of Wisdom for All Ages from a Beloved Neighbor

I often get my best advice from children. I’ll stress myself out planning and organizing the perfect morning only to find that the children, if trusted, have their own agenda - and it’s even more beautiful than I could have ever predicted. Oftentimes messier too, but that’s part of the fun! Since coming to this realization, I’ve learned to embrace the unknown and our preschool is a special place because of this. So, when we had the idea to take a trip once a month to a local retirement home, I saw this unfold once again.

Experiencing Intergenerational Living

Before I continue, you should also know something about my own family that I’m sure played a part in me wanting an experience like this for our students as well. While she was navigating some health issues, we asked my mother to move in with our family shortly after my youngest son (now 5) was born. I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of bringing non-adjacent age groups together and although it’s not always easy, it feels right and it’s how families have learned to coexist for years. I myself have become more patient and aware of other’s feelings, I have an appreciation for family traditions that I might not have known without her guidance, and the way my children look at her with admiration and love is something I’ll never be able to put into words. Older generations have an important role in our community and this year’s partnership with St. Paul’s helped me extend this powerful experience to our own students as well.

The First Few Visits

At the beginning of the school year, I reached out to Ruth Metclaff, the Director of Community Life at St. Paul’s Retirement Home in South Bend and described what we had in mind: a monthly visit with residents with no real agenda, just a set time and a place. I trusted that the children would help guide the interactions we were hoping to see and that we would go from there. Our first few visits felt quick. We read our favorite books and sang a few songs, but before we knew it, it was already time to say goodbye. We often left wondering where these short visits would take us.

We spent the weeks in between talking about what we remembered and how we could make our time more meaningful the following month with “our retired friends.” To be honest though, we also spent a lot of time discussing appropriate behavior at a retirement home. The children were eager to run down the long-carpeted hallways (they told us it reminded them of a hotel) and we often worried about safety. We spent our meetings talking about why it was important to slow down and not run into the residents. These concerns lead to discussions about bones and how they change as we age. The children had so many questions and they also wanted to learn about “the chairs with wheels.” The retirement home was full of walking aids and our students were curious to understand how they worked.

As time went on, we started to notice that the children were talking more about the residents independently throughout their mornings. During classroom birthday celebrations, they talked about the difference between 4 candles and 100 candles, as Leo remembered meeting a resident who had just celebrated her 100th birthday. Whenever we played in the snow, Malayah asked if it was snowing at St. Paul’s too, and Rhett was so excited to share with us the time he saw “a whole row of motor chairs at Trader Joes!”

Creating Gifts for Our New Friends

In December, Lila brought in materials for the entire class to make snowflakes for the residents. She told us they were for our friends to hang in their windows and carefully explained the directions to each child. We’ll never forget how excited they were while making these beautiful gifts. They talked about who they would share theirs with and even remembered some of the residents’ names and what they looked like. Their memories of our visits filled the morning and we continued to see the connections that our children had already made by themselves. 

Digging Deeper

On our next visit, the children started to notice small details - important ones that we so often overlooked. Rita asked me why some residents fell asleep when we played music and George wondered why one repeatedly asked me when we were coming back. These questions were hard to answer, but the children enjoyed talking about other people’s experiences and the concept of empathy (our school’s theme for the year) was discussed daily. We made notes to pass out with the date and time of our next visit and we decided to spend less time singing and hold more time for conversations.

The Power of Conversation

These conversations were exactly what we wanted our children to experience from these visits, whether we knew it or not. So many residents told the children how much they looked forward to our time together. They told us not to apologize for the noise, as they loved hearing the children’s laughter fill their otherwise silent hallways. We met retired teachers who remembered having big classrooms and even a mother of eight who forgot about the importance of just watching children play and learn from each other. We also met a retired mail carrier of 28 years! Working with diverse groups encourages a sense of community and St. Paul’s was a wonderful place to learn this. Not only were the visits themselves meaningful, but the conversations that occurred in between is what we found to be most valuable. Our children have the ability to help in so many ways and we truly hope they remember the impact they made on the lives of the wonderful people we met this year.

About the Author

Sarah Lotter

Sarah Lotter

Preschool 3/4 Teacher





  • character
  • early childhood

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