Story by Mary Stadnyk | Associate Editor
Most children probably think the best part of the school day is recess. They get to go outside, run around and have fun playing games with their friends.
But for students who are shy, feel left out or are new to the school community, they can dread recess – especially if they have no one with whom to play.
Recognizing that helping to develop children’s social skills and confidence levels is just as important as providing them with a quality – and in the case of Catholic schools -- a faith-based education, St. Joseph School, Toms River, has joined in a growing national movement by installing two “Buddy Benches” on its playground area.
The buddy bench is a specially designated seating area where any student who might not have anyone to play with at the time can easily seek friends and playmates, according to Divina Roche, school counselor. The buddy bench promotes awareness among the students that there are times when their peers might be alone – for whatever reason – and encourages them to invite them to join them in their play, she said.
“We want the students to welcome each other and be respectful of each other,” said Roche. “When students use the bench, it changes the dynamics of being alone because the idea is to encourage the other students to go over and befriend their peers.”
Roche noted how the Buddy Bench idea evolved from other efforts and projects the students had been working on throughout the school year to promote kindness, which was this year’s school theme. A peer leadership group, consisting of a select group of sixth, seventh and eighth graders, was formed to work with Roche in helping to maintain an overall positive social environment throughout the school.
One project the group undertook was “Kindness Month” in November during which students and faculty reflected on their acts of kindness through bulletin board displays. In the spring, Roche noted the SJGS Friend program was introduced to “recognize and applaud our students for their kindness and acceptance.” Roche said that each teacher was given five blue lanyards with the word “Friend” printed on a card to give to students who “exhibit the true meaning of friendship, love and acceptance of others.”
She then told of how the Buddy Bench, the next project, had been started by a young man in Pennsylvania and the concept has spread throughout the country. “The kids were so excited the day the benches came,” Roche said, “and they know the rules. The bench is not to be used if they are tired and just want to sit; that’s what the curb is for. The bench is for anyone who doesn’t have someone to play with.”
She noted that of the various grade levels, the younger students – grades one through five – have utilized the bench more than their older counterparts. “This bench is for everyone at any given time,” Roche emphasized. “The gift of friendship is a gift that everyone can give to one another.”
Vice principal Rita Dishon concurred with Roche, saying that the Buddy Bench can help “children develop a sense of empathy and coping skills for children who struggle with friendship.”
The two Buddy Benches, each engraved with a passage “A good friend is a blessing from God” and “Love one another as I have loved you” have made lasting impressions on the students.
Sixth grader Andrew D’Arcy, who was proudly wearing a blue “Friend” lanyard, was recognized as someone who is “nice and tries to include everyone.” He has also assisted with engaging his buddy bench peers into recess activities.
Second grader Mya Porsch “felt happy to help” a classmate by asking her to play, then noted how pleased she was to meet some new friends through the Buddy Bench.
“No one likes to be left out,” second grader Callie Yotka agreed. “Everyone is happy when they have someone to play with.”