Intergenerational art connects young students with older adults

URI Child Development Centers, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute students make meaningful connections, beautiful art displayed at Kingston Free Library

KINGSTON, R.I. — May 17, 2022 — Some of the youngest and some of the oldest learners in the University of Rhode Island community have been working together throughout the spring semester, creating beautiful art that highlights an ongoing exhibit, and, perhaps more importantly, creating lasting connections despite an age difference as high as 80 years.

Preschool students in the URI Child Development Centers (CDC) and older adults in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) and the City of Providence Senior Services have worked together virtually on multidiscipline art projects, from watercolor and “roller” paintings, to photography presentations and weaving projects. The classes met multiple times via Zoom, sharing their creations, discussing what their projects mean to them, and learning from each other. Some of their creations are hanging in the Kingston Free Library entryway gallery, at the corner of Route 138 and Upper College Road. They will remain on display throughout May.

“We had a series of art experiences in preschool classes at the CDC, and then older adults had a parallel experience in the OLLI classrooms,” said Jessica MacLeod, director of the Kingston CCD. “Then, we had Zoom meetings between the preschoolers and older adults. The preschoolers showed them their paintings and the older adults gave them encouragement and then shared their paintings. Another project was rolling paintings done with marbles. We actually had children helping teach the older adults. We were able to show the preschool children how they have commonalities with folks who are many years older than them.”

Perhaps nothing exemplified that goal better than a “Special Place” photography exhibit, which challenged students in both programs to submit a photo of a special place to them. Several students from both programs chose places in nature or at the beach, evoking similar themes.

“We did a discussion group about special places. They talked about why the places were special, and also talked about the history of the places,” MacLeod said. “Looking through the ‘Special Places’ photos really showed that they have lots of things in common despite the age differences. We enjoy some of the same experiences. There are special places that are appreciated whether you’re 3, or 53, or 73. Age doesn’t matter. I think they were interested in the connection.”

The program was funded by Peace Educators Allied for Children Everywhere, a non-profit organization of early childhood educators and volunteers dedicated to helping young children and their caregivers develop, and took place both in the Kingston CDC and its counterpart in Providence, directed by Delia Hall. In Kingston, OLLI Director Skye Leedahl matched the young students with older adults in her OLLI program, helping coordinate the experience and the learning objectives for students in both programs.

“One of our learning goals is to develop a sense of place, an understanding of their community,” MacLeod said. “So while the goal of the project was to make these connections between young students and older adults, the activities also aligned directly with our curriculum goals for children. With photography, learning about community. With weaving, there’s fine motor skills, strengthening the small muscles in their hands; and there’s patterning — over, under, over, under — which is a mathematical concept the children are developing. The project aligns with our learning goals and this larger goal of having meaningful connections across the generations.”

Organizers have already secured a second round of funding from the International Association of Laboratory Schools, to continue the program in the fall. The City of Providence also may contribute funding for a program that MacLeod hopes will be even more impactful in the coming semester.

“The children were really excited to show what they’ve been creating, and even to become the teachers, showing how to make marble paintings,” MacLeod said. “We helped children raise awareness of our campus community, of connections they have, similarities they may have to older adults, and possibilities for connections. I think it will become even more concrete and more meaningful for them when we hopefully move to in-person.”