The generation game

21st January 2005 at 00:00
David Bocking hears older people tell primary pupils about life without electricity or inside toilets

"I'm one of these that likes to think my glass is half full, not half empty," says Jack Quarmby, leaning on his walking stick as children chatter and play around him. "I like to believe the best of these kids." Nearby, Jack's fellow octogenarian Betty Olsen is playing hopscotch with a group of eight-year-olds.

Whitkirk Primary School in Leeds is hosting its first intergenerational meeting between the school's Year 4 pupils and a group of four people over the age of 70.

A fire alarm has sent young and old out into the playground for a few minutes, where both sets of participants are taking the opportunity to get to know each other. Jack laughs. "We had no opportunity to speak to older people when I was a kid. You'd only speak if you were spoken to."

The Building Bridges programme developed by Leeds Social Services department provides a framework for key stage 2 children to meet older people living near their school. The programme, written by Leeds-based consultant Penny Vine, uses circle time as the model for children to get to know a group of "silver friends", a name suggested by the pilot school for the project, Oakwood Primary, also in Leeds.

"The children like the name, and the older people think it's lovely," says learning mentor Jean Hartburn, who runs the programme at Whitkirk Primary along with Year 2 teacher Geoff Leeson. Building Bridges links to English, history and PSHE, but Whitkirk is primarily using the project as part of the school's citizenship and "healthy schools" work.

"Being a healthy school is not just about eating right and getting exercise, it's actually about mental and physical attitude," says headteacher Peter Coverdale. "This project is about broadening children's awareness of other people, and to us that's what citizenship is about: taking the school out into the community, and vice versa."

Building Bridges is a five-week programme of circle-time activities for KS2 children, preceded by two preliminary meetings between staff and the older visitors to introduce modern schooling (and the intricacies of circle time) to people who may not have set foot in a primary school for 70 years.

"You have to remember that older people might not see a school as a bright, clean and friendly place," says Jean Hartburn. "In their past, a school might have been a horrible place full of people with big sticks."

One of the aims of Building Bridges is to change stereotypes, says Peter Coverdale. Many older people fear the media portrayal of young people as loud, loutish and lawless, and "stranger danger" campaigns have often led to children losing the opportunity to communicate with older people in their own neighbourhood.

In Whitkirk's case, Jean Hartburn distributed more than 200 leaflets asking older residents of the surrounding estate to help the school for about two hours a week. Parents were asked if they could recommend older people and contact was made with groups and organisations. But the most productive road to volunteers, Jean says, is by word of mouth. After enough potential silver friends have come forward, police checks are made. (Jack Quarmby always carries his police check letter in his breast pocket like a badge of honour, says Jean.) The sessions are run in typical circle-time form with games followed by opportunities to find out about each other, talking about the older people's memories, discussing community life and possibly allowing children to discuss their problems at school with their silver friends.

Although many of the Whitkirk children have grandparents (sometimes several, and sometimes not so old, says Jean Hartburn) they may not see other older people as individuals with their own lives and histories, says Geoff Leeson.

"We're trying to widen their experience of life outside their cosy little school and cosy little home," he says.

During the pilot at Oakwood, older participants said they were honoured to be asked for their opinions and advice by the children, who in turn were sometimes "inspired" by their silver friends. Boys, in particular, were seen to benefit from the chance to talk to older people.

At Whitkirk, staff have already noticed that shy children and those with low self-esteem are benefiting from the project: one very quiet eight-year-old found himself talking for more than 10 minutes to a 71-year-old man he'd never met before.

In the initial session, the silver friends are asked a series of questions about their own childhood by the Whitkirk eight-year-olds, whose eyes open wide at the tales of life without inside toilets and televisions.

Betty Olsen tells the children about listening to a cat's whisker radio in a small house where a variety of in-laws and aunts and uncles lived. Jack Quarmby tells his audience about his one-up one-down house in the centre of Leeds, with no hot water or electricity and only a candle to light his bedroom.

"It's nice to talk to older people," says eight-year-old Clarissa Ellis.

"They tell you things you don't know."

"It's very important to get the ages together," says Jack Quarmby. "One thing that's wrong with the world is that we don't talk to each other enough. We need a little bit more of that, I believe."


* Allow several months preparation for the project.

* Ensure older people are aware the project is about more than their own reminiscences.

* Provide coloured card for older people to indicate answers in silent circle time games where participants would usually stand up several times.

* Ask older people who've already come forward for other contacts.

* Provide tea and biscuits.

* The Building Bridges resource pack is available from Positive Press, Pounds 18.95 Tel: 01225 719 204 Email: positivepress@

More intergenerational resources from:

* Help The Aged

* Beth Johnson Foundation

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