New thinking: Nurturing multigenerational spaces

Sue Egersdorff
Friday, January 21, 2022

In this second article about intergenerational connection the charity Ready Generations picks up on the concept of nurturing multigenerational spaces and what this means for young children and older people.

Sue Egersdorff

founder of Ready Generations


Shared spaces connecting generations

At Ready Generations we are busy planning for the opening of an integrated intergenerational nursery in the heart of a new build care village. The nursery will open in Spring 2022. Over the last few months we have been listening to what children and older people say is important in such a shared space.

It has been heartwarming to find out that both children and older people want the same thing! Age doesn't appear to significantly change the common conditions that are important for our wellbeing. In this article we explore five key features of effective shared spaces and things that practitioners should consider when planning such environments.


1. Intentional vision for the shared space

At Ready Generations we believe shared spaces that are collaboratively designed alongside children and older people can catalyse exciting outcomes by increasing levels of expectation and challenge. Ultimately, this leads to greater enjoyment, purpose and sense of belonging. Spaces planned around the diverse make-up and needs of specific groups are intentional spaces.

Attention to intentional design goes a long way to creating a trusting, welcoming atmosphere where all can feel noticed and valued. These conditions create psychological safety and nurture human playfulness and exploration.


2. Freedom from prescription

In early years care and education, we are experts in understanding the importance of children's play. We do everything we can to scaffold play, helping children to set intrinsic goals that build from their own motivations and interests. However, when we bring young children and older people together we seem to prefer to leave nothing to chance and tend to plan structured and tightly prescribed activities. This may be because sessions are framed by certain restrictions e.g., time, setting, resources available, expectations, group numbers etc., yet such an approach makes sustained relationships and a deeper understanding of each other's needs and desires more difficult to achieve.

We know that free play and exploration are the means by which children learn to control their own lives, develop their own interests, regulate their feelings, interact socially, solve problems and ultimately achieve a sense of themselves and their purpose in life. Older people told us that this is the same for them! They too want to be playful and left to explore in ways that are meaningful for them. They want to be the controller and director of their own interactions in ways that feel comfortable without some of the restrictions that overly directed activities create. So, we may need to think more about the environments we create for bringing generations together, and how time is planned and structured. A starter is to consider some important questions:


Are we:

  • Diminishing joy and restricting independence in what we offer?
  • Limiting sense of purpose and meaningful engagement?
  • Restricting self-discovery and exploration?
  • Narrowing opportunities to build and test out multigenerational relationships?
  • Reducing safe and appropriate risk taking?

3. Safeguarding

Managing risks safely is important. The principles of effective safeguarding are the same for children and older people, and include treating everyone with dignity, maintaining their human rights and ensuring that appropriate safeguards are put in place to protect everyone from any form of abuse.

People living with dementia can be particularly vulnerable due to the nature of their condition. Symptoms can affect communication and reasoning skills and consequently individuals may not be able to understand or explain to others what is happening to them. Babies and young children, so early in their development, face similar challenges in having their voice heard and needs met. This emphasises the importance of thinking carefully about the environment, groupings, and the professional support needed to ensure everyone can access the space equitably.


4. Physical comfort and wellbeing

The layout of the shared space can help or hinder effective connection. For example, poorly fitted mats or poor lighting can lead to trips and falls for both groups. A lack of spatial awareness and poor balance can lead to collisions with tables, chairs or other furniture or objects. Disorientation can result in a child or older person getting anxious or even lost in the space – particularly if this is outdoors where spaces are less defined. Professionals have a key role to play in helping to ensure that all participants are safe and feel safe in the shared space. This includes encouraging all generations to talk about what helps them to feel secure and safe and any improvements they feel are necessary to achieve this.

From our discussions with older people, we found that simple practical things can make an enormous difference and help to reduce anxiety for older people enabling them to engage with experiences fully:

  • Removing ill-fitted mats and slippery floor coverings
  • Considering ease of access to rest rooms e.g., steps, handrails
  • Wearing name badges so that older people don't feel anxious remembering everyone's names
  • Re-arranging furniture to help them move more easily around individual rooms
  • Thinking ahead about the space needed for wheelchairs and walking aids
  • Considering appropriate seating options as many older people cannot stand for long periods, especially when outdoors
  • Putting on lights to help improve visibility in the space
  • Pulling back curtains to allow more natural light into rooms
  • Installing simple devices to avoid sinks and baths overflowing
  • Ensuring radiator guards and any stair gates are effective
  • Putting simple signs on doors and cupboards to make it easier to find spaces, resources and objects (such as cups, saucers and cutlery)
  • Planning refreshments carefully and safely e.g. allergies, swallowing issues, hot drinks.


5. Thinking senses

Shared spaces need to be calm and ordered in such a way as to promote connection, relationship building, aid concentration and reduce any fears. This means keeping things simple with as few distractions as possible. Careful attention should be paid to noise levels, colour schemes, odours, lighting and general clutter. Noise that is acceptable to children and staff may be distressing and disorientating for a person living with dementia. Noise levels should always be a serious consideration and can be reduced by careful design, using noise absorbing materials, and the thoughtful use of decor and furnishings.

Both young children and older people are unique in how they process information and some may need longer than others with such things as speech and dialogue. Clear and direct information should be a priority with real care taken not to talk too much, overload or bombard. Low engagement should not be confused with no engagement, and sensitive scaffolding by professionals should help everyone to feel included and to take part at a level which suits them. For the most part, everyone will benefit where sensory and stimulation needs have been considered, and potential for over-stimulation reduced or controlled. Further supplementary relaxation and calming therapies and interventions such as, music, breathing activities, visualisations and hand massages may also be worth introducing at the start and end of shared sessions to promote a sense of togetherness, calmness and wellbeing.


The aim of this article was to outline some of the defining features of nurturing multigenerational spaces. Whatever age we are, we can all benefit from carefully designed environments that pay attention to safety, sensory comfort, connection and creativity. The emphasis on intentional intergenerational planning is supportive in shaping underpinning pedagogical strategies that promote ethical and inclusive design and help to scaffold meaningful relationships across all ages.

In the same way as we talk about the environment being a third teacher in early years care and education, this functionality extends across the life course. Creating a sense of place requires provoking feelings of connection, security and belonging – all of which are fundamental to owning a space and attaching to it in ways that enable life determining experiences to happen.

In the third article of this series we will be looking at the benefits of engaging in intergenerational work and the pedagogy that supports it.

If you are working on an intergenerational project too, good luck in creating your unique shared space, we would love to hear about it! To find out more about the Ready Generations project and share your intergenerational practice, email Sue Egersdorff:

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