Crafting community Connections
Happy Days - a preschool leading the way in intergenerational learning.
My name is Eilish Balfe and I have been working in the Early Years sector for thirteen years. I have been in my current employment since 2013, where I am manager and room leader of a community service called Happy Days in Ratoath, Co. Meath.
For the past seven years we have cemented and established the preschool into the wider community of Ratoath. We focus on our role as ‘Educators’ in the broadest sense - rather than just teachers of preschool children.
Happy Days is part of a community centre. My aim when I became manager was to integrate our service into the larger, overall community. This required us to be creative, innovative and become active citizens in our own community. The children absolutely thrive in this area of our curriculum. It feeds into their sense of identity and belonging and, even at their age, gives them confidence and a sense of purpose.
We have many community projects on the go - Tidy Towns, our lighting of the Community Christmas Tree, the Kindness Elves and, a new ‘Knit and Stitch’ project - to name a few! However, the one we are most proud of is our pioneering ‘Intergenerational Learning’ initiative.
This initiative began after a chance conversation with Fiona the receptionist after I visited my Dad who was a resident in Ratoath Manor Nursing Home. In December 2017, we made a ten minute walk down the main street with forty-two children to Ratoath Manor. This once off Christmas show turned into a journey of friendship, understanding, love and weekly visits on a Monday that the children have maintained, even through a pandemic!
Our visits to Ratoath Manor or our ‘pensioner playdates’ as we fondly refer to them, has become the highlight of our Monday. The giddy laughter of excited three and four year olds is probably the last thing you would expect to hear in a nursing home. Bubbly, loud and excitable - the atmosphere in the home would change the minute we walked in the door. It seems like an unusual combination mixing energetic preschoolers with a group that have a more sedate life, but not only did it seem to work, we soon began to notice the difference it was making for both generations.
My own Dad, in the very late stages of Dementia, enjoyed the children coming in and singing nursery rhymes with them. Even in the last months of his life when he forgot who I was, he knew my preschool children. One of the last times I heard his voice was singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with the children.
After each visit, we would get the floorbook out and record the children’s voices, their thoughts, what they liked or didn’t like about the visit. This way, we could track the impact it was having on our children. I would also invite the parents to text me if a child mentioned the residents at home. The children would always have a favourite resident and they would always gravitate towards them on their playdate.
The nursing home would also tell us of the excitement in the air on Monday morning, which would last all day as the residents would also continue to talk about the children. Our walk down also became part of a routine for the local community as the staff in the local shops would wait for us to pass, simply to wave at the children or to stop, talk and hear all their news.
When Covid19 hit in March 2020, Ratoath Manor was one of the first nursing homes to close its doors to visitors. This was to protect our elderly and vulnerable residents. I was finishing my thesis at the time on Intergenerational Learning. Research tells us that regular contact with children enhances the physical, emotional and cognitive well being of older people. It also enhances the communication and emotional skills of our children. But yet, Covid19 was busy tearing these two generations apart. However, I noticed a determination in the children to keep this friendship alive - in fact, it inspired our whole community.
Through a wonderful partnership with our parents, every Monday (which was our special day) an email with a letter or a picture would be sent to their friends in Ratoath Manor. Sometimes a video with the children saying ‘Hello’, singing a special song or wishing a special friend a happy birthday. That wasn’t the only community work that continued. As the weeks turned into months, the parents began to contact me about the children wanting to help the community during the pandemic to brighten up the days. Some children borrowed the little pickers and gloves to continue their Tidy Town work. We began painting stones with positive messages for people to find on their walks. They painted their windows or hung pictures on their windows thanking our frontline staff. I was volunteering in the nursing home initially, then when I learned of the struggles my frontline parents were having to find childminders so they could continue to go to work, I began helping out - which was a common practice for many early years teachers all over the country at the time.
When we reopened our doors at the end of June, we were the first sector to do so, early years and childcare were fast becoming the frontline of this pandemic. Frontline and essential, we offered the first steps of normality to our children and parents. With no PPE and no way to maintain social distance from the children in our care, we were of course faced with a high risk of catching the virus. However, education and care is what our sector is known for - care, being the devil in the detail!
As our children returned to the classroom, our aim was to keep them safe, continue to create that warm and nurturing environment but to also facilitate their beautiful intergenerational relationship with Ratoath Manor. Together once again, the friendship thrived. Technology (which I would have usually shied away from in the preschool) became our main tool. We ‘Zoomed’ in. It was lovely seeing all the children immediately running to the screen, all talking and asking questions.
In January Level 5 restrictions hit again but we remained open and thankfully we continued the Zoom calls with our friends. Our children still managed to thrive during one of the worst times the country faced, as case numbers hit their thousands.
It was a happy day when we heard of our friends receiving their life saving vaccines in January and then again when they received their second one in February. In March 2021, one whole year after we had seen our friends in person, we made that familiar ten minute walk down Main Street. This time however, instead of walking through the doors, we turned the corner to the back of the nursing home. One by one, the children began to realise what was happening. They ran to the big window where all their friends were waiting to see them.
Thankfully, through the continued hard work of all the carers in the home, every single one of our friends were still there. Fortunately, Covid19 never got into the nursing home. Monday has become our special day for our window visits. Hopefully we will be able to hug our friends once again very soon!
Eilish Balfe is the manager of Happy Days Preschool in Ratoath, Co. Meath.
Eilish is a Big Start Activist. Big Start is calling for Government investment in the Early Years Services, to make it affordable, accessible and high quality for all; with professional pay for our dedicated staff. You can join the campaign at https://bigstart.siptu.ie/
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