Photos courtesy of Charles Bolinger.
WEBSTER GROVES, Mo. - Shy students, new ones or those who struggle in social situations may find elementary school recess awkward. What started as one child’s way to increase inclusion on the playground has turned into a growing movement – Buddy Benches.
Buddy Benches are placed on or near playgrounds for student use during recess. According to the Buddy Bench website, strategies for children to effectively use the Buddy Bench include: have a plan before you go out to play, decide what to do, walk up to a person on the playground, smile and say, “Do you want to play ?”
This summer, area Girl and Boy Scout troops collaborated to install two Buddy Benches at Edgar Road Elementary School in Webster Groves and create therapy gardens around them.
"We needed these benches at our school because some kids don't know how to make friends," said Girl Scout Brownie and Edgar Road student Natalie Felgenhauer.
“A story like this one is a fantastic, positive contrast to the bullying stories we so often find in the media,” Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri CEO Bonnie Barczykowski said. “I hope more troops explore and use this idea to help students in their communities.”
Sarah Whitney, a Girl Scout mom and member of the Webster Groves Women’s Garden Association, (WGWGA) led the girls from two troops - Daisy and Brownie - through the project. WGWGA is dedicated to educating students about horticulture and funded the entire cost of the project.
First, Whitney asked the girls to study the sites. She asked them to look at them in the morning when they arrived at school, while they were outside during school and again at dismissal. Whitney wanted the girls to notice how much sun and shade both areas receive and whether there are any puddles after it rains.
Whitney said the Boy Scouts tilled the soil for the gardens, which was a big help, and they placed the benches where the girls thought they would work best. She reviewed with the girls some basic flora details like the difference between annuals and perennials and what elements make plants thrive.
The girls were very instrumental in designing the gardens, said Whitney. They amended the soil with compost before digging began. The girls dug all of the holes for the plants and Whitney advised them if the holes were big enough.
Whitney’s troop, Troop 2796, selected the plant varieties to frame the benches while Andrea Felgenhauer’s troop, Troop 2679, is in charge of maintaining the gardens. Felgenhauer said each girl in her troop will spend a week this summer caring for the gardens and making sure they take root.
"I liked watering the plants. It made me feel like I am taking care of the school," said Girl Scout Brownie Sophia Allen.
Other Buddy Bench strategies include sitting and waiting for a friend to ask one to play then going with her or him when they invite one to play. Students not using the bench are encouraged check it from time-to-time during recess and invite anyone sitting there to join their game or activity, demonstrating empathy toward others.
"It felt good to be a part of the project and I'm happy I got to help other people," said Girl Scout Brownie Parker Allen.
As a capstone, the Eagle Scout who built the benches, Mark Curtain, will create a video about them, which will be shown to the entire Edgar Road Elementary student body to educate them on how to use the Buddy Benches and their purpose. To date, there are more than 300 confirmed Buddy Benches in more than 40 states and in five nations worldwide. For more information, visit www.buddybench.org.