'Buddy Benches' foster friendship at Johnson

Monday, January 1, 2018
Johnson Elementary first-grade students Sophie Kabrick, Josie Haak and Lisa Harman came together in friendship through one of the school's Buddy Benches. The school has two benches dedicated to helping students make friends. All a lonely student has to do is sit on the bench and other students will come and sit by them to start a friendship during recess. (Photo by Colin Van Westen)

When Spencer elementary schools split by grade leaving kindergarten and first-grade students at Johnson; second- and third-grade students at Fairview; and fourth- and fifth-grade students at Lincoln; there were no older students left to mentor the younger students on friendship and how to play during recess.

This left Johnson Elementary guidance counselor Luana Nair looking for ideas to foster friendship among the students at recess. She came across an article in one of her tolerance magazines discussing Buddy Benches where lonely students can sit on a bench and other students will approach them to play together.

"Before we even got the buddy benches we were doing the second step curriculum ... our empathy lesson," Nair said. "To notice when a friend doesn't have anyone to play with, we have been working on that this whole time. When we got the Buddy Benches, that helped because it gave the student a location to look. When you are on the playground, it is kind of overwhelming for a 5-year-old that doesn't have a friend. Also, sometimes students want to swing by themselves which is OK. This gave them a designated area to watch for, to have empathy and look out for their friends."

The Buddy Benches are located at the south side of Johnson on the playground and on the east side of the school in the other playground.

"I think the kids are just so excited that somebody cares enough about them to invite," Nair said. "That's where I see them light up like Christmas trees. We do teach them that it is OK if you don't know them to invite them to play and learn their name and get to know them. I saw an email that went out to all our principals because Mr. Wagner has been very supportive and I was trying to figure out how to fund the Buddy Bench project."

That's when Nair contacted Positively Spencer Youth Director Amy Simpson about helping out with the project. Simpson liked the idea so much that PSY decided to purchase the benches for the school through Drug Free Community grant funds, a federal program.

"We know that a community with protective factors in place, where children feel loved and cared for and thought of and included and welcomed, all those things are really important characteristics," Simpson said. "It is important for kids to feel safe in the community and to feel they can grow and foster them to be good citizens.

ďA project like this is something that reinforces empathy. We really just liked the inclusion piece, you hear about bullying. If kids feel down, they are going to turn to something unhealthy down the road. They are going to learn to cope in some way and if we help to make them feel cared for, included, loved and safe as a young kid, they are much less likely to turn to unhealthy things later. We want to do anything we can to prevent that and I think these benches are just an example of that."

While there are currently no plans to place benches at other schools, the possibility is something that PSY might consider in the future.

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