Siu-Lan Tan Ph.D.

What Shapes Film?

Brilliant Way to Combat Loneliness on Playgrounds?

The buddy bench offers a seat to companionship

Posted Mar 31, 2016

//www.flickr.com/photos/charamelody/4757913318  Flickr Creative Commons License 2.0
Source: Charamelody, 140:365 Left Out at https://www.flickr.com/photos/charamelody/4757913318 Flickr Creative Commons License 2.0

What do you do when it's recess and you have nobody to play with?

It's the worst feeling when the bell rings and everybody runs off with their friends, and you have no one.

A video released by CBC News last week—which has garnered 15,000,000+ views on social media—shows a simple idea that has taken root in many school playgrounds around the world. 

What the viral video shows:  At Willowgrove School in Canada, if you find you have no one to play with at breaktime, you can take a seat on a special bench designated as "The Buddy Bench"—and someone will notice you, and invite you to join them!  (This short video can be viewed on CBC's Facebook page by clicking HERE or in the original article here)

Willowgrove is one of many schools implementing the 'Buddy Bench' idea, which originated in Germany, and was transported to the US by 8 year-old Christian Bucks of Pennsylvania. When Christian was in first grade, he heard that his family might move to Germany. While researching schools online, he found a school that had a special playground bench where a child who felt left out could sit - and others would see that they wanted a pal, and invite them to play. He shared the great idea with his school principal, gave a presentation to the School Board, and a Buddy Bench was soon placed in Roundtown school playground in Pennsylvania!

Christian continues to spread word about this friendship tool at buddybench.org. In the past two years, the idea has been implemented in many schools in the US and around the world. (You can follow the progress on Facebook here). And the cause has been taken up by many supporters, including other children like Clare Vosborg-Padget shown here, who has brought Buddy Benches to more than 20 schools, and gave a Tedx talk on the subject at age 8.  There was even a 'Buddy Bench' song released in 2015.

Schools implementing the Buddy Bench have introduced creative variations with additional benches, often marked with bus-stop-style lollipop signs (so themes can easily be changed).

  • "the sunshine spot" : a place for people, including teachers and staff, to sit when feeling blue to invite support from others.
  • "the good news spot" : a place to sit when you have great news to share  (It's my birthday, I got a new puppy, I got an A in spelling). Passersby stop momentarily to hear your good news, and share theirs.

If interested in bringing a Buddy Bench to your school: The official Buddy Bench site (click here) provides information to propose the idea to a school, prepare staff and students, and implement. I especially love this short PowerPoint presentation which can be found here to explain to children how to use the Buddy Bench - because it encourages children to be active (not wait passively) while using the bench, and includes a rule that you cannot sit on the bench every day.

A psychologist's view

As a Psychology professor who has taught Child Development courses for 17 years, I'm very taken by the Buddy Bench concept. I also teach a Social Development class that forms our own "Playground Crew", which goes to an elementary playground every day to support the social harmony and physical safety of children - every spring since 1999.

One of the challenges we see children struggling with every day in the playground is what psychologists call "entry behavior" (strategies people use to join an activity that is already in progress). In other words, what do you do to be included in what others are doing?  Examples in children (and adults):

Hovering: Circling around the activity.      (In adults: Sitting at the periphery, laughing softly or nodding, but not contributing anything to become part of the group)

Direct request: 'Can I play?'       (In adults: 'May I join you?' though we often hide behind more indirect requests such as 'Is this seat taken?') 

Disruption:  'Let's play x' when the group is busy with y.       (In adults: Entering a discussion with a conversation-changer, such as 'Okay so here's a thought. Why do you think about...')

Self-focus:  Entering by drawing attention to the self (e.g. 'Wanna see what I got?').   (In adults: Entering an ongoing discussion with a self-statement: 'You'll never guess what just happened to me.')

And many other strategies... Which are the most effective? It's hard to say. Successful entry strategies often begin with observation so that one can establish a frame of reference (What are they doing? What is the social hierarchy? What can I add?), and enter in ways that convey an understanding of the group's frame of reference (Putallaz & Wasserman, 1989; Wilson, 2006, 2011). However, the dynamics of each social situation and the traits that the individual seeking entry bring to it are so unique that it's impossible to establish a formula.  In short: studies show that entry is difficult for all ages, and bids often fail (Wilson, 2011). It's not surprising that for many children, entry is an overwhelming task—especially given children's limitations in language and cognitive abilities, and emotional regulation.

I don't believe that the Buddy Bench is a 'cure-all' for all social ills, but it can be a very helpful tool for peer inclusion. It gives peers a visual and concrete signal of another child's need. If implemented with Buddy Bench's guidelines found here, the bench is not meant to foster passivity or dependency (see the rules), but encourages using planning and socioemotional skills while the child is waiting. Once interaction has begun, the child will still have to develop and exercise entry skills, but has a place to start. The bench can open discussions and sensitize a school community to issues such as shyness, loneliness, peer rejection, bullying. Above all, a Buddy Bench in the playground stands as a clear symbol that the teachers, staff, and student body at the school truly value social inclusion, and don't want anybody to be left out.

Pass this post on to your school if you'd like them to consider setting up a Buddy Bench. (Links to relevant sites are included in this post).

And for those interested in the psychology of 'entry behavior', full research papers are linked below.

© Dr Siu-Lan Tan 2016

(Just joined Twitter! Follow me here.)

BOOKS:  Psychology of Music: From Sound to Significance (Routledge) The Psychology of Music in Multimedia (Oxford Univ Press).

My BLOG: click here.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------

Acknowledgments / Sources

This post is dedicated to Kara Norman, who made my day by telling me about the Buddy Bench.

Martha Putallaz & Aviva Wasserman’s 1989 study on naturalistic entry behavior is linked here (Abstract). (two pioneers in this area)

Beverly J Wilson 2011 study on responses to entry failure is linked here (full paper as pdf)

Beverly J Wilson  2006 study on entry behavior of aggressive-rejected children is linked here (full paper as pdf). Wilson is at Seattle Pacific University.

Jill Beilinson & Lesley Olswang's 2003 study on entry behavior in kindergartners with impairments in social communication is linked here (full paper as pdf). Olswang is at the University of Washington.