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Intergenerational play benefits family members of all ages

By Kim Hart Macneill

Anthony Wight and his wife eagerly await their meal. On the menu tonight is spaghetti and lettuce soup. The location is familiar, as is the chef, their four-year-old son Jack. Amid his plastic play kitchen he dreams up menus of imaginary food to serve to his parents.

Wight admits the lettuce soup is hilarious, but says in addition to being fun, there’s a lesson in the game. “We’re teaching him about the process of life,” says Wight. “Food doesn’t just magically appear. We’ve never gotten into the hard lessons, but he understands the process of going to the store and paying for things because he makes a game out of it.”

Jack’s restaurant is a place to express his creativity. For his parents it’s an opportunity to giggle about dishes like lettuce soup. But intergenerational play, or play between adults and children, offers numerous benefits.

Son Truong is an associate professor of Recreation and Leisure Studies at Dalhousie University’s School of Health and Human Performance. His research focuses on children’s play. While there aren’t many long-term studies on the effects of intergenerational play, he says the early studies show positive benefits.

In early childhood education it’s widely accepted that learning should follow play-based methods, says Truong, but when children enter their Primary school years and beyond, play becomes less frequent. “Sometimes we view the serious learning as needing to take place at the desk, inside the classroom with students sitting, listening, and writing. It’s not experiential, and it’s not necessarily interactive.”

There are the obvious individual benefits of play for children, the development of “head, heart, and hands,” says Truong, or mental, psychosocial, and physical development, plus opportunities to learn from older children and adults. “When we look at playful behaviour in adults and we see generally stress reduction and many reports around the calming or relaxing nature of play.”

Play falls into two general categories: structured and unstructured.
Structured play is play with a purpose that offers a specific learning goal. For Wight’s family, structured play often takes the form of board games.

“It teaches him that you’re allowed to be competitive without being overbearing and there are rules that you have to follow,” says Wight. “With something as simple as Candyland, sometimes there are obstacles that get in the way that prevent us from winning. In snakes and ladders, you roll the dice, go down the snake, and all of a sudden you’re not winning anymore but it’s still fun. He enjoys it just as much as we do.”

While organized games offer an important opportunity to learn life lessons, unstructured play offers children and adults the chance to express their imaginations.

Blanket Fort in Family Bonds & Belonging at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.

A recent exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax, in partnership with the Royal British Columbia Museum, called Family Bonds and Belonging features a dedicated intergenerational play area.

“We wanted to have not only a fun area for kids to romp, but also a way for them to play that would involve their parents and build into the intergenerational theme to make people think about family relations,” says Dan Conlin, curator.

Amid couch cushion and blanket forts, beanbag chairs, and a giant TV and lamp, children and adults let their imaginations flow. “The idea is to make adults kind of feel like they’re kids again,” says Conlin. “When everything seems so big and we were so small.”

The giant TV is actually a shadow-puppet theatre. Often, says Conlin, the adults were the ones putting on the show. “We think it deepens people’s appreciation for relations between generations, as well as providing a lot of fun. It’s the first exhibit I built that included a blanket fort, and I hope it’s not the last.”

Truong also stresses the importance of including outdoor play and making space in children’s lives to appreciate nature. This doesn’t need to mean heading deep into the wilderness, but simply embracing the outdoor spaces in your own neighbourhood.

Launch of the Ian Potter Children’s Wild Play Garden. Photo: Tim Lumsdaine

His team recently visited the Ian Potter Children’s Wild Play Garden in Centennial Park in Sydney, Australia, to understand how children play outside. The park offers a dramatic landscape rich with open spaces, dry creek beds, a water-play area, a bamboo forest, tunnels, turtle mounds, and a treehouse.

“In particular, when [children are] involved in play-space design, they’ll say, they want spaces to do big things, to run, to slide, and to swing,” he explains. “But then also, the quieter spaces or even the private spaces, which are generally not accessible to children in school or public playing areas because the sight lines are often what adults are concerned about.”

Often, says Truong, schools structure play areas to separate children by age for valid logistical reasons such as limited play space or concerns about bullying, but sometimes that can limit intergenerational learning from older peers, which is especially important for only children.

“We know there’s benefits for children in playing together with their peers and learning from their peers who might have certain skills,” he says. “They can scaffold out learning about each other, the pure learning that can take place, whether it’s physical skill, problem solving, or communication. All of that is happening in the playground.”

For all of the cognitive benefits that come from intergenerational play, Wight says the most important aspect for him is building a relationship with his son that’s not tied to his role as parent.

“We’re building that other relationship with him,” he says. “Yes, I’m his parent. Yes, we have to make sure he goes to bed and eats food, gets to school and all these other things. But he also gets to see this side of us, that whole sense of joy that comes from being parents, when we play together.”

Encourage intergenerational play

Board games: Pier 21 stocked its Family Bonds and Belonging play area with games for a range of age and language levels. Conlin’s team found their games at Value Village and the Salvation Army. Do the same at home so you’re ready to play with any visitor.

Visit outdoor spaces: Look for spots that offer areas for big play like running and climbing, and quiet spaces where you can interact with nature together. “We often found that children seek both types of environments in one play session,” says Truong.

Cook together: The Wights often let Jack help with supper by making a list of all the ingredients they’ll need and making a game of finding them in the fridge and cupboards.

Visit a museum: Though the blanket fort is packed up, Pier 21 offers other immersive spaces for family play. The immigration railway car encourages families to experience life in the past. “Kids pile into that train car and jump on the chairs,” says Conlin, and pretend they’re on a five-day train trip across the country.

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