Aug 07, 2017 01:51PM ● Published by Ashley Pape
Rockenbaugh Elementary School (RES) kids looking for a friend at recess know just where to go: the Buddy Bench. Since spring 2016, a wooden bench near the playground has been a place for new friendships to blossom. The idea is simple: If kids ever find themselves in need of a pal on the playground, they sit on the Buddy Bench.
The concept of the Buddy Bench made national headlines just four years ago when Christian Bucks, a fifth-grader from York, Pennsylvania, introduced the bench at his elementary school. Since then, nearly 2,000 Buddy Benches have popped up on playgrounds around the United States and in about a dozen other countries, according to NBC News.
Is the bench a way for kids to make a friend at recess—or is it more? Could it be the cure for playground loneliness?
RES kindergarten teacher and 2015- 16 Teacher of the Year, Cindy Ryon, thinks the Buddy Bench builds a positive school climate any way you look at it. She helped bring the bench to the RES campus after a conversation with her class sparked the idea.
“We have a morning meeting where kids can talk about what they’re nervous or excited about,” Ryon says. “One friend said, ‘I don’t have anybody to play with.’”
Ryon turned it into a lesson of how students could look out for their classmates, encouraging them to notice kids who might feel left out or sad. One of their class experiments was to smile at people and see if they smiled back. While a smile given most often resulted in a smile received, the exercise still didn’t solve the kindergartners’ big concern: Just because someone smiles doesn’t mean he or she is happy.
“After a few days of actively looking for people who were lonely, one boy said, ‘We need a place to meet!’ That’s when the idea for the Buddy Bench hit me,” Ryon recalls.
Ryon was familiar with Bucks’ story and knew about DonorsChoose.org, a site dedicated to helping teachers fund materials and experiences for students. Through the site, her class could raise the nearly $1,000 needed to bring a bench to RES. Ryon’s students brainstormed a few initial fundraising ideas—tapping Mom and Dad for money or selling baked goods, for example—but Ryon knew DonorsChoose.org was the best way to bring the idea to life.
After getting her proposal approved on the site, Ryon watched donations pour in from all over the country. Her students tracked donations on a “Dragonometer,” coloring in how much money was raised each day. After only three days, Ryon’s kindergarteners had reached their fundraising goal.
Ryon brought the fundraising full circle by having her class write thank-you notes to those who contributed. “The kids were so excited,” she recalls. “Each child handwrote four or five notes for a total of abo ut 90 thank-you messages.”
Through DonorsChoose.org, the kids selected the perfect bench for their playground—and they even followed Ryon’s design advice. “They all wanted to paint the bench green and black,” she says, “but it was such a gorgeous wood, I convinced them it was pretty as it was.”
A welcoming inscription invites all Dragons to have a seat and find a friend. Ryon has seen kids of all ages—not just kindergartners—use the bench. And she made sure the class that brought the Buddy Bench to RES understood their role in continuing the tradition. “I told them their job isn’t over. Their responsibility is to teach each grade how to use the Buddy Bench,” says Ryon.
WOULD YOU BE MY FRIEND?
For a kid with no one to play with, the playground can be a lonely place. While the purpose of the Buddy Bench is for children to make friends, some might argue that sitting on the bench singles out the lonely or excluded kids. Considering that a child is bullied every seven seconds, according to an estimate by the United States Department of Justice, could the Buddy Bench have a negative impact? Ryon doesn’t think so.
“Kids look at it differently than adults,” she says. “They don’t think, ‘Oh, that person is lonely or sad.’ They think, ‘Oh, there’s a new friend!’”
It helps, she adds, that this particular kindergarten class was highly empathetic. “They were very attuned to how other people felt,” says Ryon. “It made them sad to think that anyone didn’t have a friend to play with. They wanted everyone to have a friend.”
Janet Blackwell, principal at RES, is proud that her campus is home to a Buddy Bench and says the impact goes much further than the playground. “It has been great at making kids aware of other children,” she says. “It makes them think about others; just because they have a friend doesn’t mean that everyone has a friend. I see this not just on the playground, but in the cafeteria and all around school.”
The biggest challenge, says Ryon, has been getting kids to slow down and notice when someone is sitting on the bench. And for those youngsters perched on the bench, sometimes all it takes is a nudge to befriend someone new. “There would be times I’d see three or four kids sitting there,” she says. “I’d say, ‘Do y’all need a friend? How about each other?’”
Other schools have inquired about how to bring the Buddy Bench to their campuses, and Ryon and Blackwell hope the movement continues throughout Dragon Nation and beyond.
“It makes my heart happy to see kids using the bench,” says Ryon. “It builds a sense of community; it’s a place to be with a friend.”
With friendship just a seat away, loneliness on the playground might be a thing of the past. “Adults should have [the Buddy Bench] in the workplace,” says Blackwell. “Kids are teaching us a lesson to stop and be aware of who’s lonely. We get so busy that we forget that some people just need a friend.”