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Inclusion: It’s Not Enough to Decorate a Buddy Bench

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Published in ChicagoNow, April 5, 2016

Watching kids play on school playgrounds can break my heart. There are always some who stand alone, unsure of how to enter play. When they try, they are told they may not join the game. After a while, they just stop trying.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are some fairly simple ways to promote inclusion in play, and the Buddy Bench is one of them. You put a bench on the school playground and call it a buddy bench. You explain the concept and rules to the children. The kids seem to get this. If a classmate is sitting on the bench, just go over and invite her to play.

Unfortunately, it’s the adults who don’t seem to get how simple this idea can be. A couple of years ago, parents at several schools in my community donated and decorated these benches, but none of them are on the school playgrounds. Apparently, they are too pretty to be placed outside.

The Southern Poverty Law Center explains that these benches are part of its “Teaching Tolerance” curriculum that advocates for all forms of inclusion in our schools. “Educators who have used Buddy Benches effectively introduce the benches and their purpose during assemblies at the beginning of the year and continue to talk about the benches all year in conjunction with other efforts to promote a friendly school community.”

A few years ago, then first grader Christian Bucks suggested the Buddy Bench concept to his elementary school in Pennsylvania. It’s pretty simple to put a Buddy Bench on a school playground and kids intuitively understand the rules. All of them have felt left out of play at some point in their lives. And those rules are rather simple:

When you sit on the Buddy Bench

  • Before you sit on the Buddy Bench, think of something you would like to do. Ask someone else to play with you.

  • The bench isn’t for socializing. Only sit there if you can’t find anyone to play with.

  • While you’re sitting on the bench, look around for a game you can join.

  • If you see something you want to do or a friend you want to talk to, get off the bench.

  • If you’re sitting on the bench, play with the first classmate who invites you.

  • Keep playing with your new friends.

When you see someone sitting on the Buddy Bench

  • Start by saying hello. If you don’t know the person, introduce yourself.

  • Make conversation. What’s up? How are you? I like your shoes.

  • Ask them to play with you or suggest an activity you can do together.

  • Don’t make it the last time you hang out. Keep playing with your new friend.

Note: These recommendations are adapted from “Wanted: Playground Buddy” and Christian’s Buddy Bench.

Many years ago, when I was director of Cherry Preschool, we decided to tackle the issue of inclusion in play head on. We borrowed the ideas of Vivian Gussin Paley. In her book You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, Ms. Paley explains that the classroom and playground are not private places like your home. Just as there are rules governing a multitude of school behaviors, there should be a rule governing the right of all children to participate. In addition, she believes children are often excluded from play out of habit rather than for any real reason. In other words, “exclusion is written into the game of play. And play, as we know, will soon be the game of life.”

We couldn’t put a Buddy Bench in every classroom or in the public park we used, but Paley’s “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play” rule made perfect sense to preschoolers. New friendships were forged as children got to know other children. The kids felt relieved (even the ones who did most of the excluding). And the teachers could handle issues of exclusion matter-of-factly (You forgot the rule) rather than approaching each instance as a moral puzzle to be solved.

Parents have reported over the years that their children were puzzled when they saw children excluding one another at their elementary schools. They became playground ambassadors, explaining kindness and inclusion to their peers. They stood up for children being bullied. Having a Buddy Bench would make their job so much easier. I have no doubt the children who grew up understanding the importance of including everyone in play would have no problem approaching a child sitting alone on the bench. If only we could get the benches on the playgrounds where they belong.

Parents, thanks for taking the time to obtain and decorate Buddy Benches, but if these benches are inhabiting the school hallways, they are pretty but useless. The point is to bring those who stand alone in from the shadows. Trust me. Any old bench will do the trick, and actually using the Buddy Bench will enrich everyone’s life.


by Laurie Levy
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