On Kimberly Lane Elementary School’s two new playgrounds, there is equipment for climbing and hanging, balancing and playing ball. The shiny new set-up is an enticing jungle of blue and green, but what really catches your eye is the bright, cherry-red bench that sits invitingly at the playground’s entrance.
These are buddy benches, and they have a very simple purpose: “To eliminate loneliness and foster friendship on the playground,” according to the website buddybench.org.
The playgrounds were installed right before the beginning of the 2015-16 school year after two years of PTA fundraising and a matching grant from the city of Plymouth. As the planning progressed, some students introduced the concept of buddy benches to the student government, and members liked the idea. The student organization also partially funded the benches.
Zachary Weiner, the outgoing class president, even went into the school during the summer to select the placement for the buddy benches. “We chose a place where people who have disabilities and wheelchairs can reach it, and also where it would be easy for people to see. So we put it in front of where people came out, but not where they would trip over it,” says Weiner.
Confident and friendly, Weiner is drawn to helping his fellow students who are sitting on the bench. “Most people who feel lonely sit there,” he says. “I actually helped a few kids who were crying, sitting there.” This tool makes it simple for students to seek support—they just sit on the red bench.
Buddy benches were introduced in the United States in 2012 when an elementary student named Christian Bucks learned about the idea from a website and helped get one installed at his Pennsylvania school. The benches have only become more popular since then, and now there are benches all over the world. Within Wayzata Public Schools, Sunset Hill, Gleason Lake and Birchview elementary schools also have buddy benches.
Second-grader Sophia Liu says she hasn’t used the bench herself, but she’s seen some of her friends sit there, looking for someone to play with. “I’ve seen people on the buddy bench, but they were talking.”
Paraprofessional Cathy Franke says the benches serve a dual purpose. Kids sit on a bench when they’re looking for a playmate or someone to talk to, but they also use them to meet up and organize games. The kindergartners that Franke works with use the buddy bench daily throughout the year. They aren’t necessarily seeking someone to play with—sometimes they sat and chatted with friends. When they just wanted to connect or take a little break, it worked for that purpose, too.
Older kids used the bench pretty heavily near the beginning of the year, and it was an especially popular tool for kids who were new to the school. Later in the year, it evolved into more of a meeting spot for older grades, where they gathered and decided which games to play.
“I’m thankful that the kids have rallied around it and are using it because no one wants to feel left out. That’s one of our goals, to have everyone be included, in some way, shape or form,” Franke says.
Principal Kari Wehrmann agrees. “I think it’s nice, too, because now it’s just kind of a part of how we do Kimberly Lane. It’s a really great highlight of the focus on community that we have here, and making sure that every kid feels comfortable and confident every day that they come to school,” she says.
“I’m looking at our motto: Work, Respect and Belong,” Franke says, referring to the school slogan stenciled in graceful letters on the office wall. “That’s a way of showing respect to somebody, and obviously belonging. But to respect someone means whether you’re different than I am or the same as I am, hey—we’re all on the same Kimberly Lane team. Let’s rally around one another and make everybody feel included.”