How Buddy Benches Build Social Connections
For Administrators

Recess Social Skills: Building Connection Through Buddy Benches

By Monica Fuglei May 18, 2016

As a parent, it’s painful to see children sitting alone on the playground. I remember my own kindergarten days when I read on the playground because I didn’t yet have a friend, or I think of my kids and hope that recess is the fun playtime it should be for them.

Students build social skills at school, especially during recess

This isn’t always the case, though. As elementary school children learn arithmetic and language arts, they are also learning valuable social skills like empathy and connection. Like any skill, these social skills need some practice with peers and guidance from their mentors. One great way to train children’s empathy and social connection is to add “Buddy Benches” to a school’s playground.

Elementary students can use Buddy Benches to seek a playmate or invite others to join their activities

A Buddy Bench is a small, safe haven. Children who are feeling emotional or lonely can sit on the bench as a clear signal to others on the playground that they are in need of social connection. According to Amanda Scherker at the Huffington Post, this can foster peer support and lead to reductions in school bullying. When a school creates a visual signal that emotional and social connection is a priority in their community, it’s helping elementary students prioritize social connection. Meanwhile, those using the bench are reminded of their own responsibility to look for social groups they might want to connect with and take some time to think of how to say “Hello” and make new friends.

Recipe for a successful Buddy Bench system: Supportive school culture, student ideas, fundraising efforts

By itself, a Buddy Bench does not necessarily foster and support social connections, so it should be part of a larger package that helps ensure an inclusive climate at their school. Tolerance.org encourages schools to consider the Buddy Bench an integral part of a larger curriculum aimed at inclusive school cultures, like the Green Circle Curriculum or Positive Behavior Intervention. Additionally, the rules of the bench should be clearly communicated to all students so that they are aware of its symbolic importance as well as its functional purpose.

Bringing Buddy Benches into a school requires more than purchasing the bench itself. Tolerance.org suggests that discussing a playground bench prior to purchase or installation can be an important step in inclusiveness. Gathering ideas from students and parents is a great way to garner excitement and understanding before the bench even arrives. Additionally, engaging students in fundraising activities can show them how readily their commitment and engagement can elicit change in the world. This inclusiveness and advocacy has ramifications far more lasting than the playground bench itself.   

Setting student expectations and rules for using the Buddy Bench

Once purchased and installed, the bench should be clearly marked as a Buddy Bench and students should be educated in the important rules of that area. These rules include responsibilities for both those who need the bench and those who intervene on their behalf.

An important next step is education: Because the bench itself is only a piece of the inclusive culture a school is seeking, administration and teachers need to be certain that they have fully educated their students on the inspiration for and rules for its use. The website Christian’s Buddy Bench provides helpful educational materials and suggestions for rules for the bench that can help your school prepare for installation before the bench even arrives. Again, soliciting student input on the rules and management of the site fosters inclusiveness and engagement in the process.

Schools focused on inclusiveness stop students from slipping through the cracks

Ultimately, it’s essential to remember that a Buddy Bench is more than just a bench. It’s a sign of an inclusive school culture as well as an open act against bullying. In order for students, parents, and communities to fully understand the importance of such a thing, openness must be a part of every step in the process. This connection can and will spread through students in a school, and any children who might otherwise slip through the cracks have a place to show us their disconnection and a set of actions that they and others can take to avoid isolation.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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