Buddy benches inspire inclusion at Glen Ellyn school
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When a reporter asks kids about a school project, they usually give a boilerplate response: "It was cool."
But talk to second-graders at Abraham Lincoln Elementary about seeing a buddy bench installed on the school playground, and the youngsters are what we in the media call a "good quote."
"Super-duper!" one student says of his reaction to the bench.
The kids show that enthusiasm without a journalist's prodding. And that's because they were the ones who led a combined effort as first-graders to bring a buddy bench to the Glen Ellyn school. And they were the ones who inspired educators to unveil the benches at all of the other elementary school playgrounds in Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41.
Here's how the benches work: If kids are feeling lonely at recess, or they just want to talk to a friendly face, they sit on the bench and a classmate invites them to play.
The concept made national headlines about four years ago after Christian Bucks, then a first-grader in Pennsylvania, approached his teacher about adding a buddy bench to the playground at his school.
Lincoln students embarked on that same mission as part of a district problem-based learning program in which they are expected to guide their own research and work toward a solution.
"They're learning to be a good citizen and to really be part of the world that they're living in and growing in," first-grade teacher Patty Dentinger said.
At the start of the yearlong project, the first-graders surveyed students about their experiences on the playground and started journals to brainstorm ideas.
"They really thought a lot about playing with people on the playground together and how to engage the other kids they didn't know, because a lot of times we have a lot of new kids come into first grade," Dentinger said.
Students endorsed the buddy bench as a way for kids to be inclusive and attentive to those in need of a pal.
"The buddy bench is for everyone," second-grader Chloe Todd said.
To pay for the installation, the kids hosted a bake sale last December and raised $535.
"They ran the whole thing," Dentinger said.
Students held a vote to pick the model of buddy bench that would end up at the school. They, of course, choose an environmentally friendly bench made of recycled materials, first-grade teacher Christine Kotarba said.
Students also had raised enough money to paint the bench with their thumbprints in the shapes of ladybugs, bees and other animals.
What's more, students stepped in front of the camera for a video to explain what to do if their peers see someone on the bench.
Educators knew a stigma is sometimes associated with the bench. But at Lincoln, students came up with an awareness campaign: "Lincoln's counting on you to keep an eye on the buddy bench."
And when students saw the finished product?
"They were so proud of the work they did," Principal Linda Schweikhofer said. "That in itself made it feel like they have the power to make a difference in the world."