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Preschoolers and senior citizens creating unique friendships

Early in life, kids are able to learn and pick up on so many things without even realizing they are being taught. A group of preschoolers have spent time recently with senior citizens from an Austin-area assisted living facility.

Early in life, kids are able to learn and pick up on so many things without even realizing they are being taught. With this in mind, a set of Austin college students have created an environment to help a certain group of preschoolers learn in a different kind of way.

Katie Peterson, assistant professor in the Teacher Education Department at St. Edward's University, said she always wanted to be a teacher growing up, but slightly adjusted her career path early on.

"When I became a teacher, I realized I wanted to contribute to the teaching community in different ways, so I decided to pursue a PhD after I taught for several years in a public school," Peterson said.

So she ended up here in Austin, working with college students wanting to become teachers themselves. A big part of her work was helping her students create a unique program that bridges a generational gap -- connecting preschoolers with senior citizens.

"They two groups can build relationships and build a sense of purpose around all the energy in the room." Peterson said. "Both of these groups walk away with a sense of purpose and a feeling of belonging."

Before creating this get together, Peterson already had worked with the teachers and students from Child's Day Child Development Center, so these are the preschoolers who were hanging out with the senior citizens from Brookdale Westlake Hills Assisted Living Facility. Linda Kay Dickey is one of the residents at Brookdale Westlake Hills and said this gathering means a lot of her.

"Today was simply wonderful," Dickey said. "I was in an orphanage until I was 4 years old. It was nothing like what these kids are already doing. It's really a lift to all of us who live here to see these cute children."

The students started and ended their morning at the center by singing some prepared songs for the senior citizens. Between those performances, these two groups read books together, solved puzzles, made paper mache hearts, ate cookies and other simple things that wouldn't be too difficult to do with one another.

Katie Dube, a senior at St. Edward's University studying special education. said hanging out in this way allows her to put what she's learning in the classroom into practice.

"It's good for the kids to see that they can make a difference in the community," Dube said. "You can just tell that everyone here -- all the residents -- their days are just being brightened. My day is even being brightened."

While there were plenty of sweet moments created, there was also plenty of research that went into this program and why this is valuable for both groups. The preschoolers get the chance to learn about older generations, practice language and gain social capital related to learning how to talk to and learn from new people. These kids are also learning by being involved in the community without realizing that lessons are being taught.

The residents of the senior center get the opportunity to learn about the culture of future generations and have reported a sense of joy in being able to contribute and give back.

Both of these groups also develop a sense of belonging and purpose in giving back to their immediate community and a reciprocity transferring skills and cultural knowledge across the generations.

"Getting to practice language and thinking about language while working with other people, that is valuable by itself," Peterson said. "They do this while contributing to a space -- that's all embedded in the design of what we can do when we come here."

The kids from this child development center will be heading back to the assisted living facility in December, allowing the presechoolers to get to know their new friends a little bit better.