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Building Relationships


It is the relationship–what is happening between generations–that really matters. Intergenerational activities and programs are a means to building a culture of caring relationships.

– Saez, Ponazo, and Sanchez (2007, pg.186)

Meaningful intergenerational engagement is at the core of high-quality intergenerational facilities. Beyond providing services, shared sites intentionally foster personal bonds and feelings of affection, support, trust, and companionship. Relationships become an end in themselves as people of different ages engage in shared experiences. This focus on being together with people of different generations in a safe, caring place can foster empathy, mutual learning, and a sense of connectedness.

Although physical proximity can increase the likelihood that children and older adults will interact, it does not guarantee that meaningful relationships will form. The age and ability level of participants, physical space, the nature of programming, and cultural norms and values will impact relationship development. It is important to prepare both children and older adults to engage in new relationships, to treat each other with respect, and to acknowledge commonalities and differences. Think about how you can create BOTH structured activities that intentionally promote authentic cross-age exchange AND opportunities for informal interaction.

Champion Intergenerational Center

7.1 Designing Structured Activities

A wide range of activities and programs can be developed for participants in your shared site. It is important to align programming with your mission, values, physical space, and policies as well as the needs and interests of the populations you serve. The type of activity and the way it is facilitated will greatly impact the level of intergenerational engagement. Staff members who are trained in intergenerational best practices, work as a team, and have a good understanding of participants can play a critical role in the creation of a high-quality shared site. (See STAFFING section of Toolkit).

Characteristics of High-Quality Intergenerational Activities

Remember to focus on process over product! Positive interaction between age groups is more important than the successful completion of an activity.

Strategies for Designing Activities

Identify the interests, strengths, and needs of participants.

It is important to know the backgrounds and interests of the children and older adults with whom you are working in order to design activities that will engage participants. You can gather this information through individual interviews, surveys, focus groups, discussions with parents or caregivers, and/or experiential exercises. It is particularly helpful for staff to elicit stories and background information from elders with cognitive impairments and/or their caregivers so that they can draw upon it when planning or conducting activities. 

Questions for older adults:

  • What are your skills, job or travel experiences, talents, or passions?
  • What do you think you could share with or teach children?
  • What would you be interested in learning about or learning to do?
  • What activities would you enjoy doing with young people? (e.g., reading books together, cooking, gardening, storytelling, movement, games).
  • What kinds of things did you enjoy doing as a child?
  • How do you feel about interacting with children on a regular basis?

Questions for children:

  • What kinds of things do you like to do?
  • What are you good at?
  • What would you like to learn about?
  • What could you teach older people?
  • What questions do you have about older people?
  • Do you know any older people? If yes, how would you describe them?
EXAMPLE: Experiential Exercise

Here is an example of an exercise that focuses on the “gifts” people can share. It is an effective way of learning about the assets of older adults and could be used with children who are old enough to understand these concepts.


Begin the activity by explaining that everyone can bring special gifts to any group.  You can either create a handout or just discuss the following “gifts.”

Gifts of the hands: What talents or skills do you have that you could share with others (e.g., woodworking, singing, dancing, painting, cooking, sewing, gardening)?

Gifts of the head: What specific knowledge do you have that you would like to share with others (e.g., art history, a foreign language, event planning)?

Gifts of the heart: What special social or emotional gifts do you have that could help you work with children (e.g., empathy, friendliness, patience, sense of humor, good listening skills)?

Clarify your objectives for each activity.

Intergenerational activities can result in a wide range of educational, developmental, and socioemotional mutual benefits. Be clear about what you want to achieve and the process you will use to reach those objectives. Consider two types of objectives – one focused on individual change (e.g., improvement of social skills in a child) and the other focused on group change (e.g., promote intergenerational friendship among participants from different generations).

Take a look at a list of objectives for activities involving frail elders and preschoolers from Generations United’s Tried and True: A Guide to Successful Intergenerational Activities at Shared Site Programs.

Engage participants in planning activities.

Research suggests that engaging participants in planning activities can increase engagement and contribute to self-esteem. This applies to older adults who often experience a loss of power as well as children who often just follow instructions from teachers. Using an “empowerment” framework when designing activities involves:

  • Sharing responsibility for making program-related decisions
  • Asking people for their opinions and ideas routinely
  • Involving participants in roles such as “peer recruiters” or “intergenerational ambassadors” and creating ways to incentivize them
  • Developing an evaluation that provides opportunities for participants to share their views on their own terms (e.g., through focus groups, interviews, journals)

Click here to read an article about empowerment.

Design activities that take into consideration the ages, abilities, and cultural values of the populations you are serving.

“It is important to value the individual abilities that children and older adults are building or trying to maintain as well as the social histories and cultural identities that shape their identities.”

— Shannon Jarrott

It can be challenging to design activities that provide developmentally and functionally appropriate learning experiences for children and older adults. Since there is often wide variability in functional levels within these groups, it is important to offer a continuum of activities that reflect different abilities and interests and require different levels of energy. Activities should have a meaningful purpose that is significant and relevant to all participants. The following are some of the skills or tasks that are important to people at different stages of life.

Developmental tasks of early childhood: Crucial developmental tasks during the first five years of life center on the mastery of essential building blocks for later success in school. These include the ability to get along with others, make friends, become engaged in social groups, and begin to manage powerful emotions. Intergenerational programs can provide meaningful socialization and learning opportunities for young children and provide a solid foundation for further growth.

Developmental tasks of old age: There are many different frameworks for understanding the developmental tasks of old age.  Critical issues older adults must address include the loss of previous roles (e.g., work, raising a family), changes in physical and cognitive abilities, and their own mortality. If thoughtfully designed, intergenerational activities can help enhance elders’ well-being by offering them new roles, expanding the range of activities in which they are engaged, and providing them opportunities to transmit their knowledge and experience to future generations.



Understanding the role culture can play in promoting meaningful relationships is critical for successful programming. Be aware of differences regarding cultural norms, values, and communication patterns. In some cultures, older adults expect young people to listen more than talk and not to question an authority figure. Different cultures may have different norms related to eye contact, touching while talking, personal space, and topics that are inappropriate to discuss with a stranger. Explicitly address the fact that cultural differences add richness to a program.

Take into consideration your physical space.

The size, layout, and location of your space will influence the types of activities you design.  Do as much as possible to make the space an ingredient for enhancing the power of intergenerational interactions.

If possible, use a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces for activities.  It is also important to prepare your space – minimize safety hazards, minimize distractions, and lay out materials beforehand. When possible, provide sets of materials that children and older adults can share rather than giving participants each their own supplies.

Develop a coordinated intergenerational curriculum rather than a series of discrete activities.

This can include ongoing activities (e.g., reading, exercise) as well as programs focused on specific themes such as the life cycle, your neighborhood, or Black history. Programs can extend across multiple sessions, with participants gathering and preparing materials, creating a project, and sharing it with others.