Undergraduate Research Community

Children's Perceptions of Older Adults

Amy M. Horgan and *Bronwyn S. Fees

Kansas State University

First author may be reached at: Family Studies and Human Services, 308 Justin Hall, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS 66506, [email protected], 785-532-5500.

Amy is a graduate student, who conducted research while receiving a Bachelors of Science degree in Family Studies and Human Services. Amy completed this project as a part of the Honors Program.

The Institutional Review Board (IRB) for Kansas State University has reviewed your modification request to the proposal identified above and has determined that it is exempt from further review.


One focus of intergenerational programming is to facilitate positive attitudes toward relationships between older adults and children. Through repeated, meaningful interactions, it is hypothesized these children and adults will develop a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the characteristics and challenges faced by the other age group. Through qualitative data analysis at five sites in a Midwestern state, this research examines attitudes toward older adults among children (n=78) who participated in community-based intergenerational programs. Children's responses provide evidence to suggest that differences in children's views of older adults vary by a child's cognitive level.

Children's Perceptions of Older Adults

American children experience a high-tech, fast-paced world quite different from the world that today's older adults experienced as children. The rapid pace of family lifestyles today has resulted in more segregation and less frequent interaction between the younger community members and older individuals. Grandparents often live far away, limiting opportunities for interaction with grandchildren to special occasions (National Association of Secondary School Principals-NASSP, 1998). Many activities that traditionally took place in the home-tasks like caring for frail elders, minding young children, and teaching cultural history and skills-are often done by people outside the family (NASSP). As a result of limited interaction, children may have misconceptions and stereotypes about the older generations. American children do not perceive being old as a positive experience and may have negative feelings about the physical aspects of age (NASSP). An intergenerational program brings together different generations in mutually beneficial planned activities designed to achieve specified goals (NASSP). Because American society is mobile and segregated by age, the purpose of an intergenerational program is to connect youth with older adults and the reverse.

This study examined perceptions of older adults among young children who have participated in at least one year of intergenerational programming. More specifically, the authors wanted to examine differences in children's perceptions and possible changes in attitudes with cognitive maturity. Prior research on children's attitudes toward the elderly has yet to examine change and continuities in attitudes across time. Thus, little empirical research on this issue exists. Understanding children's perceptions of older adults should guide appropriate intergenerational programming.

Review of Literature

Findings from the literature suggest that intergenerational programs are effective in developing positive attitudes toward older adults. Young children had a raised level of awareness regarding elders and the aging process and students also increased their level of empathy toward older adults (Middlecamp & Gross, 2002). Consistently, throughout the literature, children had more positive than negative attitudes toward older adults. Middlecamp and Gross emphasized that children who frequently interacted with older adults described them as friendly, and children who were familiar with older adults used more positive descriptions of them than of the older adults who were strangers. Children assigned positive characteristics of rich, friendly, wonderful, and good to old people and found differences in descriptions used by fourth graders as compared to descriptions by eighth graders (Schwalbach & Kiernan, 2002).

However children still seem to prefer the company of younger adults. Seefeldt, Jantz, Galper, and Serock (1977) presented pictures of older adults to children (kindergarten to fifth grade) who were asked to put the pictures in order from youngest to oldest and also pick a picture of the person with whom they preferred to be. More children picked the picture of the youngest man as their preference.

We might expect differences in children's attitudes toward older adults because children's thinking matures with age. Piaget's theory identified qualitative differences between primary and late elementary age children in their cognition. He conceived of human cognition as a network of psychological structures created by an active organism constantly striving to make sense of experience (Berk, 2000). According to Piaget's cognitive development theory, children actively construct knowledge as they manipulate and explore their world, and their cognitive development occurs in qualitatively unique stages (Berk).

Children between the age of two and seven years experience what Piaget termed preoperational thinking. The child has developed the ability to respond mentally to ideas and uses symbolization (Boeree, 2002). For example, preoperational children are perceptually bound to physical attributes; seeing is believing. Gray hair, a cane, or wheelchairs are symbols that the preoperational child may use for describing an older adult. Piaget acknowledged that language is our most flexible means of mental representation (Berk, 2000). When children think in words, they overcome the limits of their momentary perceptions (Berk). Young children can deal with the past, present, and future at once, creating larger, interconnected images of reality (Berk). Their drawings contain perceptual distortions, which help make their pictures look fanciful and inventive.

The concrete operational stage spans between ages seven to twelve years of age. Children develop the ability to use deductive logic about objects and events (Boeree, 2002). Their increased vocabulary and language proficiency allows them to be more descriptive. For example, children in older elementary grades (4-6) may use more abstract characteristics when describing an older person. For example, older children may understand that an older adult may have been through war or describe the elderly as having a great deal of knowledge or wisdom. According to Piaget, concrete operational reasoning is far more flexible and organized in its application to concrete information (Berk, 2000).

Programs have used a variety of activities to bring the older adults and youth together to share talents. Some of the activities include a pen pal writing program and a phone pal program (Friedman, 1999). The pen pal and phone pal programs received the best results with fifth graders and older. Children attended a senior center for crafts, snacks, and singing and visited nursing homes to do intergenerational activities once a week. These activities involved going on a picnic, reading stories, drawing pictures, exercising, or watching movies (Middlecamp & Gross, 2002). Other activities included card and board games, educational games, or shared creations such as painting pumpkins and clay pots or frosting cookies (Schwalbach & Kiernan, 2002). The older adults visited the children in their classrooms to share projects. The elderly shared their personal stories with historical significance. From these joint activities, understanding of one another by the elderly and children increased (Schwalbach & Kiernan).

Intergenerational programs have demonstrated benefits to children. Intergenerational programs are related to an increase in children's academic performance as well as an increase in positive social behavior (Friedman, 2002). Children are provided with positive role models, and barriers created by fear and uncertainty are broken (Chowdhary, 2002). Positive connections and meaningful relationships are formed between the children and the elders (Bales, Eklund, & Siffin, 2000). A sense of appreciation for life is developed by the children; they learn to see elders as valuable resources, and they learn to value and respect elders (NASSP, 1998). Children gain a level of awareness and understanding of elders (Schwalbach & Kiernan, 2002). A sense of continuity and significance of the life cycles is gained by the children (McGuinn & Mosher-Ashley, 2002). Development of positive feelings and attitudes toward elders arise from the children (Kiernan & Mosher-Ashley, 2002).

Older adults also benefit from intergenerational relationships. In a meta-analysis of the literature, Fees & Berg (2002) identified the following benefits for older adults. Intergenerational programs increase senior citizens' sense of connection to others while maintaining their self-esteem. Some activities may allow seniors to reminisce, share life experiences and wisdom with others, and feel a greater connection to their community. The programs foster learning and development of skills and encourage a sense of pride in seniors. Programs allow seniors to maintain or improve their health, especially mental/emotional. For seniors who have caregivers, the caregivers reported increased self-esteem, fewer apathetic behaviors, and increased positive self-image among the senior participants. The seniors gained an increased understanding of the challenges faced by children, and an appreciation for them through such programs. A sense of productiveness resulted from intergenerational interactions. For older adults who felt they were losing their options to make choices, autonomy was encouraged through making decisions during the activities with children. Older adults continued to feel like contributing members of society through being a role model for a child. Intergenerational programs helped decrease isolation and increase positive self-perception.

In summary, the focus of this study was to examine children's attitudes toward older adults after participating in at least one year of intergenerational programming and to assess whether or not children's descriptions of the elderly were affected by the age of the child.



A total of 78 children from kindergarten to third grade (n=42) and fourth to eighth grade (n=36) participated in this study. All participants were engaged in a statewide intergenerational program called PATH Across the Generations (Bradshaw, Berg, & Fees, 2002). The purpose of the PATH is to facilitate relationships between the young and old in the community (Bradshaw, Berg, & Fees). PATH encourages older people of Kansas to maintain a healthy lifestyle and to increase the interaction between older adults and the children. Data were collected as a part of a larger evaluation project on PATH funded by a private foundation. It is hypothesized that PATH is beneficial to children because the program increases positive attitudes toward older adults. The 40 Developmental Assets (Benson, Leffert, Scales, & Blythe, 1998) serves as the foundation for the program. Developmental assets are "strengths needed to succeed" during youth. Through intergenerational interactions, both youth and adults will gain a greater understanding of the knowledge, expertise, attributes, and challenges of the other age group and build on the assets of youth.

During this study, socioeconomic status, race, gender, and home environment of these children were not recorded. Children were identified through five rural school districts in Kansas who were active in the PATH intergenerational programs during the 2001-2002 school year. Each school was a rural district with a town population ranging between 600 and 6,500. Three sites were in the third year of continuous programming and two sites were in their second year of programming.


Researchers requested permission from the school principal and teachers to hold a focus group with children during class time. Parental consent forms were sent home with children to be signed following required procedures set forth by the university institutional review board. Parents were asked to complete a questionnaire at the end of the permission form to assess change on their child's internal and external assets. Community members completed a survey regarding their knowledge of PATH, their perception of benefits to the youth, and community awareness of the project. The school principal also completed a survey sharing observations of interactions and changes in students. This analysis will focus only on analysis of data from the focus groups.

On the day of the focus group, children with parental permission remained in class. Children without permission to participate attended another activity. Focus groups were conducted using a structured interview process. The protocol for the interview included the following instructions and questions.

1. Draw a picture (children k-3rd grade) or write a letter to a friend (4th grade and older) describing a senior citizen or elderly person.
2. Do you know any senior citizens or elderly persons in your community? How do you know them?
3. How often do you see/talk with senior citizens or the elderly in your community? What do they do when they see you?
4. Think about the senior citizens that came to your classroom. Describe the activities you did with them. What did you learn from them? What did they learn from you?
5. Look back at your pictures (or letters). Is there anything you would add or change?

The focus of this analysis was on younger children's perceptions drawn from their pictures and older children's perceptions written from their letters (questions 1, 4, 5). Video and audio tapes were utilized to record responses of the children.

Data Analysis

A qualitative inductive approach was used to analyze the data. Three sources of data were used to assess attitudes: children's conversations, children's drawings, and children's letters to a friend. Focus group discussions were transcripted by a graduate student blind to the purpose of this study.

For each question, comments were grouped by emerging themes by members of the research team. Analysis was conducted separately for the primary grade children and the older children in order to assess possible change in children's perceptions as a result of age. For the primary age group, drawings were analyzed and distinguishing characteristics were noted and emerging themes were examined. For each older age group, letters were analyzed and distinguishing characteristics were noted and emerging themes were examined as well. The two age groups were compared to examine the presence of differences in description by age of child.


The focus of this study was to examine children's attitudes toward older adults after participating in at least one year of intergenerational programming and to assess whether or not the children's descriptions changed with age.

Primary-aged children's verbal description of a senior citizen.

A review of the pictures revealed the following themes. Senior citizens are grandparents; senior citizens are nice; senior citizens have gray hair; senior citizens have white hair; senior citizens are old; senior citizens have wrinkles; senior citizens have to have wheelchairs; and senior citizens have to have a cane.

Older elementary children's verbal description of a senior citizen.

A review of children's responses revealed the following themes. Senior citizens are grandparents; senior citizens are nice; senior citizens are older; senior citizens are wise; senior citizens have gray hair; senior citizens are slow drivers; senior citizens will help you with things; senior citizens have lived a long life; senior citizens are interesting; and senior citizens have more experience.

What did primary-aged children learn from the older adults?

Children verbally responded with these emerging themes: to be nice and kind to others, how to make cookies, how to play games like checkers, how to make ice cream, to respect others who are elders, how to play the piano, how to make a jack-o-lantern, learned magic tricks, that elders are nice people, how to sew, how to make bracelets, and how to make a pie.

What did older elementary-aged children learn from older adults?

These common themes emerged for the older grades: games, that older people are fun to be with, how to be patient and helpful, how to listen to instructions, how to crochet, how to make cookies and ice cream, how to make different crafts, that older adults are interesting and interested in us, about their times (history), how to make birdhouses, about Kansas, and that they are full of wisdom.

Common themes in drawing by primary grades.

A review of the children's pictures revealed the following themes: Grandma's cats; canes; wrinkles on the elders; glasses; Grandma's grave; wheelchairs; gray hair; and Grandma's house.

Common themes in letters by older elementary children.

A review of the children's letters revealed the following themes: senior citizens are funny; senior citizens are fun to be with; senior citizens are nice; senior citizens are kind; senior citizens know a lot of things; senior citizens tell stories from when they were young; senior citizens are wise; senior citizens are there to help you; senior citizens like children; senior citizens are easy to get along with; senior citizens have been through a lot; and senior citizens spoil you.


A comparison of the two sets of responses provides evidence to suggest differences in children's views by age. Findings show children of primary ages view older adults by their physical characteristics. These children recalled the physical attributes when describing older adults such as a wheelchair or a cane. Children of older ages utilized more abstract thinking when describing adults. These children identified older adult's wisdom and experience.


The primary goal of this study was to explore children's perceptions of older adults and, in particular, how perceptions varied by the age of the child. Age differences were hypothesized due to the differences in logical thinking as proposed by Piaget.
As hypothesized, children's responses to the open-ended questions, letters, and drawings provide evidence that different views do occur by children's age. Children of primary grades and older grades described the elderly in different ways.

The literature focused on children's attitudes toward older adults. Findings from the literature showed that children who participated in an intergenerational program had more positive feelings toward older adults. This study found that the children used more positive adjectives such as nice, wise, and fun, than negative ones to describe older adults.

There were some limitations with this study. Ages of the children were not documented, only grade level. One grade might include a wide range of ages. We also did not know how many parents were in the child's home or their exposure to other older adults. This was a pilot study so there was no comparison sample.

The PATH Across the Generations project attempts to form intergenerational relationships between young and old individuals. Progress was made toward reaching the goals of the program because children characterized positive attitudes toward older adults. Further study of intergenerational programs could examine gender differences in perception of older adults as well as the quality of interaction and its affect on attitudes. Implications of this study suggest that educators should be mindful of children's perceptions and how their views may differ by age.

Older adults are very important role models and children need that influence in their lives. Readers should be mindful of this when building their own intergenerational program. The program planners should be aware that perceptions differ by the cognitive maturity of the child. Referring to the information about Piaget's theory will help differentiate certain tasks that children of different ages can do. An important part of an intergenerational program is creation of positive attitudes toward the elderly through quality interactions with older adults.


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