1 September 2017

Emma Tolley is a Project Officer for the ‘Deep Roots New Shoots’ initiative at Eden Project Communities, which aims to facilitate playful experiences between different generations. It is funded through the Second Half Fund (by Nesta and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), to support the growth of innovations that mobilise the time and talents of older people.

Photo of a man and children on space hoppers

The evidence is clear that play is important for us all, whatever our age, but the nature of the types of play that we engage in can change over our lifetime.  The imaginative play of younger children is replaced by more structured sports and game-playing of adolescents, and then by more sedentary games like Bridge, solving crosswords and Sudoku, played by older people to keep an active mind. Research is focusing on the positive effects of play for the elderly including increased relaxation and improved cognitive functioning, including memory. But how can we benefit from playing together?

The Seattle Day Care Centre (in the US) put intergenerational learning and interaction at the core of its values.  Its founders observed that, in wider society, we were increasingly isolated from others: the extended family of previous generations has, been replaced by smaller, more isolated family groups, limiting the opportunities for interaction amongst children and adults of different ages. Their vision for day-care for the elderly was to create a village-like context - and having children on site was crucial to this. The mutual benefits for both elderly people and children have been clear. Interaction with the elderly has helped the children become more confident and articulate, whilst the older people have improved feelings of self-worth.  The scheme is so successful and popular that the day centre is always oversubscribed, with waiting lists for both groups, and there is a strong movement in the US for intergenerational learning.

This model was replicated recently in Channel 4’s documentary, “Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds”, which showed the discernible and measurable benefits to the elderly residents in just a six-week period, in terms of physical and cognitive skills and mood.  Michael, a retired headmaster at the home, described having the children visit as like “a shot of adrenaline.”

63% of grandparents with grandchildren aged under 16 now provide regular childcare.  Those who look after their grandchildren for up to 15 hours a week are often fitter and healthier than their peers, and have a reduced risk of developing illnesses such as Alzheimer’s. The value is seen from the other side, too: children who regularly spend time with grandparents show higher levels of language development, creativity, and problem solving skills.

To encourage and facilitate intergenerational play, The Eden Project is launching Deep Roots, New Shoots: a programme of activities where grandparents and grandchildren can come together with other grandparents and grandchildren and be inspired to engage in new play activities and experiences.  It is a chance to encourage and celebrate all of the benefits that intergenerational play can bring. With story-telling, nursery rhymes, craft activities, sing and sign classes, music and movement sessions, nature and walking trails led by our enthusiastic team of older volunteers, there are lots of opportunities to make new and lasting memories and have fun together.  

As creatures with intricate brains, complex social structures, and demanding (and often repetitive) work, play is a necessary tool to enable children and adults to explore and challenge themselves, and be freed from stress. And as play increases optimism and enhances mood, it has a positive impact on the wider community, too.