By June O'Sullivan, CEO of London Early Years Foundation (LEYF)
When I was developing the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF) approach to community nurseries, I was determined to ensure we built bridges across the generations. Over the thirty years I worked with children and families, I became more and more convinced by the social benefits of connecting generations, which has become increasingly important due to the growing chasm emerging between the generations and an increase in loneliness, especially in cities.
We came up with the LEYF multigenerational approach: a way to ensure people from all the generations could connect. We liked the concept of social capital as defined by Robert Putnam, who articulates the power of connections and networks, resulting in the bridging and bonding of social capital, which in turn builds trust. We also benefited from research from the World Health Organisation, Gulbenkian Foundation and Beth Johnson Foundation, particularly regarding the concept of age friendly cities and communities, which acknowledge the needs of all the generations when building local planning systems. More recently, Policy Exchange also produced a report about the state of modern Britain, examining loneliness and isolation among older citizens.
There is no doubt about the importance of multi-generational practice to the social context of the UK and the benefits to children in early years as strong family makes strong community. Multigenerational practice can be defined as assisting individuals, families, and communities within the context of cross-generational relations and larger social systems to promote change which strengthens the inherent capacities of the family system and supports the best possible relationship between individuals and families and their environment.
We recognised that our nurseries needed to be catalysts for reaching out to all generations living in the local communities we operated in.
Staff at LEYF were keen to increase integration and they wanted to place their nursery at the heart of their local community, creating a space that reflected the local geography and social demography. They believed that children needed to grow up in harmony with all those around them and learn to respect older people.
In London, only 18% of small children have a grandparent living near them. Attendance at a nursery which encourages multi-generational activities provides a higher chance of children meeting and engaging with people of all ages. Some of the activities nurseries developed included Teens and Toddlers (a project helping young people avoid becoming teenage parents), community trips out with extended families, grandparents days, nursery open days for families and their friends and football sessions with dads, brothers, uncles and granddads.
Children have to find their place in fast changing communities and older people who have a sense of the history of an area can provide an anchor.
Promoting age integration on a community level is not without its challenges. In addition to the usual cry of not having enough time, the main challenge has been getting staff ready and able to apply the approach in a confident way. We also needed to ensure we had mitigated safeguarding risks and built clear systems of protecting the children.
However, despite the odds, the LEYF multigenerational approach is a model that brings significant value to children in terms of their connections with the wider community, extended kinship, familiarity with their neighbourhood and a positive attitude to develop relationships with adults of all ages. It’s a step towards better understanding the challenges we face as a society and one simple way of responding to the complexity and reciprocity of multigenerational dynamics across different communities.
June is a member of the Commission's Delivery Working Group