New book examines how environment can foster intergenerational connections

Amy Duke
February 28, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Research has shown, time and again, the relationship between social isolation and poor physical and mental health, especially for the most vulnerable — children and older adults.

While social scientists have focused on the role of social programs for encouraging interaction and mutual support among these groups, not much attention has been given to the role of the physical environment in inspiring and sustaining these social connections, noted Matt Kaplan, professor of intergenerational programs and aging in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

"The benefits of intergenerational programs for buffering against the negative effects of social isolation and loneliness are well documented," Kaplan said. "But we also want to encourage the creation of community settings that serve as spatial focal points — intergenerational contact zones — for increasing opportunities for social connections in communities."

Ways of thinking about, planning and designing intergenerationally enriched environments are explored in a new book, "Intergenerational Contact Zones: Place-based Strategies for Promoting Social Inclusion and Belonging," which was co-edited by Kaplan, Leng Leng Thang, of the National University of Singapore, Mariano Sánchez, of the University of Granada, Spain, and Jaco Hoffman, of North-West University, South Africa.

Each of the book's 25 chapters features a real-life example of an innovative project or plan for fostering social inclusion and elevating the quality of life for those involved. These projects take place in diverse settings, including schools, urban parks, libraries, rooftops, senior housing complexes and community gardens in the U.S. and abroad.

Using forests as a place to bring generations together is the focus of a chapter written by Sanford Smith, teaching professor of forest resources at Penn State, in collaboration with Kaplan. In it, they discuss using historical interpretation through reenacting, sometimes referred to as "living history," for building the interest, knowledge and engagement of children and youth in forest landscapes.

The approach introduces a way to help young people see forests not as a separate domain from their lives, but as an important part of history and their lives today. Getting youth "jazzed" about forests is important, Smith pointed out, because they are the future caretakers of these natural resources.

"Forests have rich biological and cultural histories," said Smith, who also is a natural resources and youth extension specialist. "They have many stories to tell, from historical happenings such as military encampments, to the everyday life of the early settlers and how they used the forest for shelter, food, energy and their livelihood. Our forests are part of our past, present and future, and they can serve as important places for generations to connect in new and novel ways."

Forest living history presenation

Sanford Smith, teaching professor of forest resources and extension specialist, impersonates a collier, a person who made charcoal from wood in the forest, during a “living history” presentation at The Arboretum at Penn State.

IMAGE: Penn State

The book also describes how community gardens can function as animated settings that bond and bridge the generations. One such example is an intergenerational partnership between young adult cancer survivors and Penn State Extension Master Gardeners that takes root at the Hershey Community Garden, located on the campus of Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

The program aims to improve diet and physical activity among the cancer survivors by pairing them with older, experienced gardeners who teach them how to grow fresh fruits and vegetables, all while cultivating lifelong friendships.

"The Master Gardener Program is well-positioned to help land-grant institutions execute their mission to improve the lives of individuals and communities," said Michael Masiuk, Penn State Extension assistant director for horticulture programs. "Involving Master Gardeners as mentors for adolescent and young adult cancer survivors is one example of how land-grant institutions serve local communities to address current societal needs."

Another chapter describes an intergenerational gardening program situated on the rooftops of a highly urbanized environment — Hong Kong. These new rooftop green spaces provide time and space for families to experience and enjoy nature together.

Interactive nature activities derived from the Play and Grow preschool program — which was developed by Tanja Sobko, assistant professor, School of Biological Sciences at the University of Hong Kong — engage children, parents and grandparents as partners in creating and nurturing the gardens. Sobko co-authored the chapter with Louise Chawla, professor emerita, Program in Environmental Design, University of Colorado Boulder.

Though the target audience for the book is primarily academics, policymakers and educators interested in human development, healthy aging and community planning, anyone interested in reducing the psychological and social distance between generations will benefit from its content, Kaplan contends.

"The publication is a rich how-to toolkit to help professionals and user groups as they begin to consider ways to develop, activate and nurture intergenerational spaces," he said.

More information about "Intergenerational Contact Zones: Place-based Strategies for Promoting Social Inclusion and Belonging" is available online.

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Last Updated February 28, 2020