Marilynn Young | LB Indy 2016-12-03 00:46:48
Sometimes you just might need a buddy to hang out with. Two years ago, a hand-painted buddy bench was added to the El Morro Elementary playground by the PTA’s Character Counts Committee to create a place where a student in need of a friend can find one. Along the way, the bench has also proved a platform for students to cultivate empathy at a young age. “The bench is a wonderful place to non-verbally ask someone to play with you,” El Morro counselor Marianne Lawson says. Some students’ communicate better than others, she said citing coping skills and social development as outlined by Search Institute, of Minneapolis, which researches skills and behaviors of adolescents. “The bench is a way for reaching out for help,” she said, pointing out that even adults are hesitant to walk up to a group and break into a conversation. For a child with no one to play with, there may be no lonelier place than the school playground. And children with an established group of play friends may not possess the social awareness to seek out those who feel excluded. During recess this week, Athena Montires, 7, availed herself of the bench. She sat down alone with her lunch. “I don’t really have any friends to sit next to anymore.” She said she had been with a group of friends that had “more important things to do,” she said. “Nobody wants to play with me.” After a short conversation, though no students joined her, she was soon running off to play a game called Jailbreak on the playground shortly before the bell rang. Third grade student Wyatt sat down during the following recess and started eating his chicken nuggets. He said he liked the bench because it was warm. He also said he likes bringing a book to the bench to read by himself. After a short time, Johnni Muir sat down next to him and started talking. Their conversation drew the attention of Enzo Casolari, who came along and asked them if they wanted to play. Enzo is a PAL (Peer Assistance Leadership), one of about 30 students that agreed to take on the responsibility to invite anyone on the bench if they want to play. “It makes you feel sad when you see all the other kids playing on the field and you don’t have anyone,” says Enzo, revealing his own well-developed sense of empathy. He said he signed up “because we all go out and try to play.” He added that some kids can’t play physically due to a disability so he goes up to them to see if they want to play, too. PTA member Celine Macmillan, who co-chaired an El Morro character counts committee, revisited the buddy bench concept two years ago. The idea had been explored previously by Carrie Jenal, a speech language pathologist, and Elizabeth Harris, a resource specialist, but was shelved at the time. Macmillan and co-chair Deborah Paswaters envisioned the bench as the ideal place to physically embody trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship, the traits taught in a district program, Six Pillars of Character. At El Morro, students are encouraged to submit “complement cards” when they observe a classmate exhibiting a character pillar. In a recent example, provided by Lawson, Alexa Briney complemented Thomas G. for his honesty in reporting to his teacher an error he made on the computer. The program’s intent is to help instill a positive learning environment for students and a “culture of kindness,” making schools a safe environment for students to learn, says a Character Counts website. The first buddy bench concept originated in the United States by a first grader in Pennsylvania, who in 2013 saw a bench at a school in Germany for kids that needed a friend. As his family was soon to relocate, he recognized he would make use of the bench as the new kid and suggested his present school needed one too, according to Christian Buck’s Buddy Bench website. Principal Christopher Duddy provided the committee with a long plain aluminum bench from the schoolyard, which was transformed by Paswaters. She drew sea lions, El Morros’s school mascot, and depicted them frolicking in ocean waves. She used a metal-based primer, metallic paint and varnish and lettered the bench with the six character traits. “I see that it really works,” says Paswater, when reached at her Laguna Canyon studio. “I would love if we could do that with adults.”
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