At one Washington County school, buddy benches are for making friends


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Like most children his age, 10-year-old Lorenzo Zeni thinks recess is the best part of the school day.

He can’t wait to play football, freeze tag and other games with classmates when the 2014-15 school year starts next month at Madonna Catholic Regional School in Monongahela, Washington County.

Administrators and teachers at the school want every student to enjoy recess as much as Lorenzo. That’s largely why in April the school joined a growing national movement to create a playground’‍s “buddy bench.”

A buddy bench is a special, designated seating area where students who feel lonely, bored, upset, shy or sad can easily seek friends and playmates, Michele Ruddock, guidance counselor at Madonna Catholic, said.

“When a child sits on a buddy bench, it signals other students to invite them to play or to talk to them. If none does, an adult will come over and support them,” she said.

Lorenzo, of Monongahela, recalled once sitting on the buddy bench last spring. “When someone came over to me, I felt happy. It only took, like, half a minute,” he said.

Ms. Ruddock, of Moon, said the buddy bench concept is a tool to prevent loneliness, foster friendships and promote inclusion. It also is designed to reinforce lessons the students are learning about kindness, compassion and appreciating differences, she said.

“It promotes an overall atmosphere of openness where kids feel comfortable talking about their feelings rather than keeping them all bottled up, and that’s important,” Principal Don Militzer added.

Ms. Ruddock said she became inspired to facilitate the school’s buddy bench project after reading an item on Facebook about Christian Bucks, of York, Pa. 

“As soon as I saw it, I knew I wanted to do it with my students. It was such a neat idea,” she said.

Christian, now age 8 and a third-grader, is credited with popularizing the buddy bench in the United States. According to his family’s website, www.buddybench.org, in spring 2013, the Bucks family faced the possibility of moving to Germany. While they looked online at schools there, Christian, then a first-grader, saw a picture of a playground bench with the words “Buddy Bench” on it. He asked about it, liked what he heard and thought it would be a good thing to have at his own school, Roundtown Elementary in York.

He lobbied his teacher and principal, who approved the idea in the fall when Christian was in second grade. The Bucks ended up not moving to Germany, and by the end of 2013, Christian’s buddy bench became a reality at the school.

When a local newspaper story on Christian caught the attention of the Huffington Post and other national media, a movement was born, the website noted. To date, there are more than 275 buddy benches nationally and internationally, with many schools incorporating the concept into their anti-bullying programs.

At Madonna Catholic, the entire student body, from pre-K through eighth grade, uses the buddy bench, but only the fourth-graders helped decorate it, Ms. Ruddock said. She and teachers agreed that the class, known for its “different personalities,” would benefit from a team-building experience, she added.

“The students took ownership of it right away,” Ms. Ruddock said.

She bought a 5-foot-wide wooden bench at Ikea, and the class voted to paint it white with a colorful splatter design.

“It was super fun and funny. The paint splattered everywhere. Everyone got it on their clothes,” said Chelsea Sala, 10, of Belle Vernon.

The buddy bench was completed in late March, and on April 4, the fourth-graders presented a skit to the student body on how the bench could foster friendships and community, Ms. Ruddock said.

Fourth-grade teacher Gerri Fusina of Charleroi said she noticed a difference in her students shortly after the buddy bench was put to use.

“I could tell they felt good about doing the right thing and rescuing somebody. They seemed to become a little more aware of the feelings of other students, and what it feels like to be left out,” she said.

Before the bench arrived, it wasn’t obvious to students that, if a classmate was just standing around or walking alone, the child might want a friend or to join in play, Ms. Fusina said.

Many buddy benches are permanently installed; others, like the one at Madonna Catholic, are not. It is kept indoors for protection from the elements and carried out for each recess period, Ms. Ruddock said.

A handful of other schools in the area have buddy benches in varied stages of completion. Among them: Aiken Elementary in Green Tree, part of Keystone Oaks School District; O’Hara Elementary in O’Hara, Fox Chapel Area School District; and Central Christian Academy in Houston, Washington County.

Ms. Ruddock said she “absolutely” believes more schools should consider jumping on the buddy bench bandwagon.

“When I see my students use it, and see the looks on their faces when someone comes over and asks them to play, there’s just nothing better than that,” she said.

Freelance writer Kathy Samudovsky: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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