Julie Occhiuto, early childhood educator at UNSW Tigger’s Honeypot, shares her experience of an innovative program bringing together young children and residents from a local aged care service.
Everyone has a story and this one of mine begins with an inherent love of both young children and the elderly in our communities. As a child I had a special bond with both my grandparents and I spent many school holidays with them exploring my grandfather Jack’s shed and helping my grandma Bonnie bake apple pie. They both gave me the time and guidance that my parents could not always give. As a teacher with over 23 years’ experience I feel that the strong bond I had with my grandparents has supported me to be the teacher I am today.
I have worked at Tigger’s Honeypot, an early childhood education and care service in Randwick with Early Years @ UNSW Australia for the past 11 years. Early Years and the University of NSW (UNSW) both place a high value on staff professional development and a commitment to being leaders in education. Being a university-based service, over the years we have found that many of our families have travelled from overseas or interstate to work or study at UNSW. Many of these families have shared with us stories of missing extended family members, in particular grandparents, who were helping and supporting them in raising their children.
In 2008, with support from the University I initiated the TIME (Tigger’s Intergenerational Milford Enrichment) program which involves children from Tigger’s Honeypot visiting residents at Milford House Aged Care in Randwick on a fortnightly basis. Residents also visit the children, regularly travelling in their bus to spend time in our garden and interacting and playing with the children.
During these exchanged visits, children and residents participate in a shared activity such as clay work which helps create a common ground for children, teachers, residents and their families to engage in conversation, interactions, share stories and build reciprocal and genuine friendships.
The TIME program embraces the notion that we can challenge biases and stereotypes, promotes inclusiveness and advances our pursuit of social justice and equity within our extended communities. Over the years the TIME program has evolved in its own unique way resulting in a partnership that has enormous benefits.
Though an aged care facility is specifically designed for older adults and early learning centres are designed for young children, there are numerous benefits when children and the elderly engage in each other’s environments. By utilising each other’s facilities, sharing resources in novel ways and just by spending time together, both the children and the elderly have a valuable opportunity to experience and discuss things they would not otherwise have.
Children have displayed many different responses to the diversity they have observed during our visits. Often there is a sense of curiosity when they see or notice things for the first time. On one visit a few years ago children met a new resident (who I will refer to as Robert) who had just one eye. At the time I observed children avoiding any interaction with Robert, preferring to talk to the more familiar residents. As a facilitator of the program I initiated a conversation with Robert and discovered that he was a scientist and had travelled the world. Upon hearing this conversation children slowly but surely flocked to Robert’s side as he shared stories of his work and travels with many humorous twists.
During reflection time back at Tigger’s Honeypot, many children explained their feelings of being somewhat scared by ‘the man with one eye’ but how they liked him now and thought he told funny jokes and stories. This particular conversation led to discussions about our bodies and the differences we all have which soon carried over into the children’s play as they constructed a hospital and made eye patches in the craft area. Robert soon became a favourite friend of the children and they would often offer him tokens of their friendship such as personalised drawings.
I have received a great deal of encouragement for the TIME program. Last year I was awarded Early Childhood Teacher of the Year at The Australian Family Early Education and Care awards. This allowed me to fulfil a dream and bucket list wish of visiting The Grace Living Centre in Jenks, Oklahoma.
The Grace Living Centre is a school and aged care centre in the one facility. Children and residents come together many times every day to participate in shared activities such as the ‘Book buddies’ program, Zumba classes and arts and crafts. A highlight of the program for me was the numerous cats and dogs walking around, freely intermingling with the children and residents and adding another layer to this highly interactive environment.
I believe that each and every educator has a passion that they can share with children through their teaching practices. Our partnership with Milford House has become integral to who we are as a service, what we stand for and how we effect the changes we would like to see in the world, and for that I am very proud. The success of the program could not have happened without the support of our children, families, centre Director – Sylvia Turner, educators, particularly Maria Koufou, residents, their families and staff at Thompson Health care, especially Suzanne Hobart and Shirley Sheikh.
I would love to inspire other early childhood services to reach out to their local community and support their children in becoming active citizens within their communities through engagement with our elders in aged care (and elsewhere). We need to recognise our elders as having a wealth of knowledge and experience that is relevant to our lives today. My long term goal is to establish an intergenerational facility similar to the Grace Living Centre right here in Sydney, pets included.
Want to know more about the TIME program? Watch UNSW Tigger’s Honeypot video: From Tigger’s to Milford House, with Love
UNSW Tigger’s Honeypot
Milford House Aged Care Randwick
This was first published on ACECQA’s blog, We Hear You.