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INTERGENERATIONAL LEARNING: The newest oldest way to learn

INTERGENERATIONAL LEARNING: The newest oldest way to learn

Amy Dennison, Associate Director of CCM Preparatory

Education Director, The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music Preparatory and Community Engagement

What is intergenerational learning?

Intergenerational Learning has been going on informally for thousands of years through the passing down of information from the eldest to the youngest members of families. Flash forward to 1965 when the Foster Grandparent Program began. As part of the federal Senior Corp program the Foster Grandparent Program was designed to reduce isolation among the growing number of older adults. It also provided low-income seniors with a small stipend and an annual physical exam in exchange for volunteering 20 to 40 hours each week. But intergenerational learning goes beyond basic care – on either side of the age spectrum.

Intergenerational Learning (IL) describes the way that people of all ages can learn together and from each other. IL is an important part of lifelong learning, in which generations work together to gain skills, values and knowledge simultaneously. This differs from multigenerational learning, in which learning stems from younger and older people interacting, as when a grandchild helps her grandma learn to use the computer printer, or grandma teaches her grandchild how to make homemade pudding.

Why are the arts the logical platform for IL?

You would think that the arts were created especially for intergenerational learning! Several reasons the arts come to mind:

  • The arts are brain aerobics. They challenge the participant to multitask, to think at a higher level and to engage in creative thinking. For the grandchild this is excellent for the still developing brain and for the grandparent it helps to keep the brain active, counteracting memory loss and depression. Movement experiences provide opportunities for older adults to improve coordination, sustain muscle tone, and provide essential oxygen to the whole body.

  • The arts encompass creative AND critical thinking. Grandpa, the engineer, may look at an artistic challenge through a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) lens and approach it as a scientist. His grandson might take a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) approach and look at it through the lens of an artist. One assignment, two legitimate approaches, and everyone learns something new.

  • The grandparents and grandchildren work as a team. Each brings specific skills to the team. The realization settles in that working together is more helpful than one person doing all the lifting, physically and mentally!

CCM Grand: an intergenerational summer program

As a proud graduate of Michigan State University, several years ago I learned about the university’s Grandparents University program. Flash forward to 2018 and I am seriously considering a new frontier – intergenerational learning. I began my entry into IL with Amy Carnahan at MSU. As the director of the largest intergenerational summer camp in the country, she was extremely generous with her sharing of knowledge, going so far as to insisting that I volunteer at my alma mater so that I could see first hand how IL works. Oh, did I mention the numbers -- just shy of 1,400 individuals tied together in whatever way they were interpreting the definition of family.

After an amazing two and one half days seeing the comfortable and content appearances of grandchildren and grandparents as they left Grandparents University, I knew my version of the program at University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) would work out. After almost nine months of exploring, examining, and talking to whomever I could about the merits of such a program I was ready to direct the first CCM Grand, our version of Grandparents University.

The incredibly successful MSU program filled two huge dorms and my enrollment this beginning year was flat at 12 individuals – not even 12 families. But I was committed. I had spent too long and too much time to cancel it. I begged people and reduced the tuition (which meant I called on a lot of favors from friends) and squeaked out 16 people (that included me and my older sister – whom I recruited to be my volunteer). Now with 16, it felt like a good size for a class, a tour and whatever I had planned. July 24, my sister and I moved into the flashy new dorm on campus for the two days along with three other families. There were also three commuter families. As we got ready for our opening sessions, everyone was laughing and having a great time. The kids bonded together and it looks more like a family reunion for educators than a grandparents program. And that’s how the next two days unfolded. We were a tribe; everybody looked out for each other and supported each other. We had sessions in all the arts and it was tough to say what was the highlight. But I think it was when the families recorded their videopodcasts in the Emedia TV station. Or was it relaxing in the leisure pool at the recreation center? Or making frame drums and rainsticks? Fun was the operative word for the program.

Will we do it again? I certainly hope so! Did we make mistakes? Of course! The key is to learn from them and listen to the participants. We had a good discussion at the end of the program and we definitely gained valuable insights from the conversations. Was it worth it? To have a group of people who didn’t know each other grow so close so quickly, while learning and trying new things and being good sports about all of this was amazing. But let’s not forget what the goal was and is for IL: people of different generations working together to gain skills, values and knowledge.

Lessons Learned

  • Learn more about your populations that you’ll be working with. For example:

  • Children and grandparents have a lot in common:

  • Both have time to learn and to try things – parents usually don’t.

  • Both are often marginalized in the decision making of things that affect them.

  • Don’t assume what is successful for another program is the only way to be successful; the program the milieu surrounding it must be compatible with the overall cultural values of the community you are serving.

  • Find the right length – less is more – keep them coming back!

  • If possible create and offer classes that challenge both generations and that would be new to the learner that puts the participants on an even learning level.

  • Offer hands-on activities that require two people to complete.


  • Generations United – a great informational and

resource site

  • Summaries of various intergenerational programs and research associated with them

  • Senior Corp programs in Cincinnati


  • (video from MSU)



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