Tribal Learning

Cross Generational

There were no kids’ fingerprints on the highly buffed oak conference table. When we dropped our proposal letter on its pristine surface, we had no idea what the response might be.  How surprised we were when two directors of Aspen Hill Nursing Home leaned across the table and said, “We’ve been wishing something like this would happen for years!” 

Our group of parents in suburban Connecticut had been growing increasingly dissatisfied with public schooling for our kindergarten and first grade children. It seemed as if the push-down pressure for early academic education was going against all the data for how young children learn, causing stress and robbing kids of their natural curiosity for learning.

We had been visiting Aspen Hill over the last year and were always amazed at the care, beauty, and hard work that had gone into the community center. The only thing missing on a day-to-day basis seemed to be children. A dream began to percolate and eventually was formulated into the mission statement that now lay on the polished table:

We parents and teachers want to create an alternate model of education that stays true to the research of childcare experts old and new: that young children learn by exploring, touching, and experimenting, not by rote memorization and repetitive academic study. We want to foster and protect a love and excitement for learning, a curiosity about the natural world and our place in it, as well as strong and considerate social interactions with people of all ages.

We dream of finding a classroom somewhere near the wonderful resource of elderly people, who can share their stories, and become reading or lunch buddies, an impromptu audience for a newly learned song, or gardening partners. 

Among our members, we have four mothers with teaching backgrounds, and others skilled at arts and crafts, music and movement, and drama. We hope to meet every weekday from 9:00 to 12:00, with two mothers sponsoring each day, and teaching their forte in a creative and caring way, whether indoors or out.

We’re a non-profit organization; no money changes hands. If you would consider offering us a room to suit our and your purposes, we will commit to keeping it clean, tidy, and in good maintenance. We commit to working with your staff on a daily basis to make sure we’re an asset to your organization.

Thank you for considering our proposal.

Even before we left the office, we were offered a beautiful sunny room, complete with kitchenette, on the main hallway to the residents’ dining room. 

Yes, there are logistics to negotiate as we establish ourselves. The room is used for private parties and conferences in the afternoon, so each day we have to roll our furniture across the hallway into a big adjacent storage room.  The plus?  Kids love to help set up and pack away their classroom, bringing in just the right amount of chairs, finding out if we’re using the easel or the block cart today.  We intentionally purchased mobile furniture to accommodate our flexible schedule.

We start our morning a little early for most residents; when you’re 85, you may prefer your breakfast around 10:00. So we don’t have a guarantee of senior attendance every day, but as our classroom has a huge picture window into the hallway, and we leave our door open as much as possible, we often look up from our yarn crafts to see a smiling grandmother in the doorway, who is more than willing to come in for a moment and share her memories of learning to knit at age five. 

Former teachers drop in and give us tips about the value of puppets as a learning tool.

A grandpa rolls his wheelchair in and tells glamorous tales of adventures on the high seas—well, on his Maine fishing boat—but his small audience gives him the respect due to a gallant sea captain (or a dashing pirate, for he surely looks more like the latter). 

Whenever we line up into a freight train, and file more-or-less quietly through the long halls toward to courtyard, (train whistles naturally included,) we meet huge smiles and comments like “This is the best thing that has happened to Aspen!” We may not see these commenters for more than brief moments. A child’s cheerful “Good morning!” or even a loud “TOOT! Here comes the train!” is a hark-back to a happier time when someone’s own kids or grandkids were underfoot.  Sometimes, it’s all that’s needed to make a senior citizen’s day. 

Our school’s presence here has proved a magnet for artists who may not have thought of setting up shop in a nursing home. Every Friday, a charismatic musician hosts a “Music Together” class for children age zero to 95.  The open, wheelchair accessible space is perfect for dancing, singing, percussion and other happy interactions; no special skills or abilities required.

A traveling theater group stopped in to perform a Native American legend, “How Coyote brought Fire to Man.” They were dazzled by the class participation and enjoyment level. Both ends of life’s spectrum appreciate a good story.  When a Fire Being sneaks up behind Coyote, some 4-year-old is going to blurt out “LOOK BEHIND YOU!” and cause chuckles all the way to the back row. 

Perhaps our favorite day is gym class in Gardenview, the wing for memory-impaired residents. Many can no longer express themselves clearly, and need assistance getting to their armchairs, which are placed strategically in a large circle. But when every resident is holding the edge of a parachute, and the colorful tent snaps up and the kids run underneath, popping up between armchairs with mischievous grins, no language is needed. Bat-the-balloon, bowling, Bingo, any activity you could name is made better by the interaction of ages.  You can’t tell who is having the most fun. 

The eight kids in our program aren’t learning their ABCs by memorizing a wall chart. They learn it on the Bingo board. They may not yet be as advanced in their studies as their public school counterparts.  We parents are not worried about that. Our kids are bubbling with curiosity, excited to soak up new ideas, and ready to pick up “reading, writing, ‘rithmetic” as a cohesive part of their life journey.

For my own children, I don’t care half as much about academics as I do about attitude.  I stand back and watch my 5-year-old daughter having a conversation with a grandmother who can now only speak with her eyes and her smiles. She’s bent and wrinkled, she needs a wheelchair, and she’s as full of life as the preschooler at her elbow. Across the room, there’s the grandpa who says anything that comes into his head. Not once have I heard a sentence that I can put into any context of sense.  The little boy who’s talking with him obviously has no such hang-up. 

These kids have been given a great gift. They’re no longer afraid of age and disability. A walker is not intimidating, it’s just an accessory.

This is my question to the public schools of our time. When do our kids learn a responsibility and connection to the great human race?  For millennia, children sat at the feet of the village elders to learn about life. The lessons were immediate and applicable; they modeled courage, resourcefulness and community.  Now our elders are much harder to reach, or society has far less interest in finding them.

Does our world need more Harvard graduates? How about seeding it with more people of heart, who make their decisions from a place of respect and empathy, rather than good business sense? 

I hope when I’m 90 I’ll have a child at my knee.  Just skip all those middle-aged people – give me someone with some sense, so we can talk nonsense and then laugh about it.  That’s what life is all about.

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About the Author Maureen Swinger

Maureen Swinger

is a full-time mother of three, and a part-time teacher, writer, and editor. While living in Connecticut, she and seven other mothers teamed up to found a collective home-school group; now she works as an editor for Plough Publishing House in New York, and her children attend the Fox Hill Community Kindergarten, where they spend most of their day playing and learning in the great outdoors.

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