In 2010, I encourage you to spend maximal time with small children. It's a big thought — intergenerational interaction is supported in research, and in everyday observation, as helping us age optimally.
Extension researcher Matt Kaplan, a Ph.D. at Penn State University, is exploring the impact of intergenerational contact in a variety of settings and speaks passionately about old-young interactions as "wisdom moments."
Encounters with children may happen less often as we move through life. Even if you're grandparents, distance may separate you or busy schedules may mean fewer opportunities.
I have a suggestion as we enter into the spring. If you see a playful group of children in a park, stop what you are doing — even if it means pulling the car over or interrupting a daily walk. Watch the children interact. Try to be fully "in the moment." If you are fortunate, a stray ball may roll your way or a frolicking youngster may approach to ask a question.
I saw it happen just yesterday, an elderly woman, bundled up to offset the cold, was sitting on a bench in a local park. A small child tentatively walked toward her, clutching her mother's hand, clearly wanting to ask whether she could pet the woman's dog. The woman saw her and smiled, focused on the child totally and reached out for a handshake in the way she might if engaging an adult. Then they both smiled — even the dog seemed to smile.
The woman introduced herself and her fluffy, squirmy little dog. The girl giggled. It was tender and wonderful. I am inclined to store up moments like that and pull them out when I need a little attitudinal adjustment. For example, if I'm having a hectic, too-busy day, I just think about our 5-year-old granddaughter, Sarah.
During her holiday visit with us, Sarah sang "Joy to the World." She sang it all the time — with her head thrown back and one arm outstretched. She declared it was her "most favorite song." She sang it in the backseat of the car. She sang it while playing with her worse-for-wear cardboard dolls (last year's Christmas gift). And she seemed to sing it with particular gusto whenever family tensions loomed (after all, we had 12 independently spirited people packed into our not-all-that-big home for one festive, rainy, week.) But it was a good family time, made better by the presence of children of all ages.
I just received an e-mail message from Sarah's mom that said, "Thank you for the great visit "¦ it is worth noting Sarah has taken to singing 'Joy to the World' with her hand over her heart. She says it 'helps the love get out.' "
Find a sweet and special memory or a recollected moment that involves a child. Sometimes small children are particularly good at eliciting happiness and good will but any age will do. Borrow my Sarah-story if you like. Store it away. Pull it out when you need a lift. And when spring really arrives, take a walk in the park.
Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.