By Mike Marsee
No child should be left alone during recess, and students at one Elizabethtown Independent elementary school have made sure that won’t happen on their watch.
Morningside Elementary School is among the latest of Kentucky’s schools to introduce the Buddy Bench, a place for students who are feeling left out.
Buddy Benches foster an atmosphere of inclusion by offering students who are feeling alone or are in need of a friend a way to make friends – or at least find someone to play with – by reminding all students to be kind and reach out to each other.
Third-grade teacher Laura Hayes, who directs the student council at Morningside, spurred the council to install a Buddy Bench at the school. That led to a drive to place a Buddy Bench at every elementary school in Hardin County.
“It was intended to be a small project, but it’s grown into a neat project for the community,” Hayes said. “I think it reflects the attitude that we try to foster at our school that learning and academics are important, but learning how treat others and your character is equally important.”
It started with $1,000. The school’s parent-teacher organization told Hayes there was $1,000 in extra money to spend and asked her to work with the student council on an issue within the school that they felt needed improvement.
Hayes had heard about the Buddy Bench, which was introduced at a Pennsylvania elementary school by a 1st-grade student who had seen it at a school in Germany. The idea quickly took off. There are an estimated 2,000 schools with benches in the United States and about a dozen other countries.
The Buddy Bench concept was on a list of ideas Hayes shared with the 12 student council members at Morningside Elementary, and it was the one to which they were attracted.
“That became the unanimous choice. They all wanted it,” she said.
The 4th- and 5th-grade students prepared a presentation for the PTO, and their project was off and running.
It didn’t stop there, however. The 2015-16 class of Leadership Hardin County, a leadership development and community educational program, learned about the Buddy Bench when they toured Morningside and talked to students.
“The leadership class said, ‘We have a service project as a class, and we’d like to put one at every school in the county,” Hayes said.
The Morningside student council members presented to the leadership group, which asked them to make a how-to video that will be given to each school where a bench is installed.
“The district has a TV production studio where we made the video. I wrote the script, and the kids practiced and acted it out,” Hayes said.
Jamie Sparks, the school health and physical education director with the Kentucky Department of Education, said the Morningside students’ work underscores the fact that learning doesn’t stop when students head out the door at recess.
“Recess is a crucial learning environment that supports students’ ability to succeed in the classroom every day in addition to fostering lifelong skills needed in life. This program is a great example of student leadership that further enhances the numerous benefits of recess within the overall school culture,” Sparks said.
Hayes said she believes the leadership group has raised enough money to install a bench at each of the 16 elementary schools in Hardin County, and the $1,000 the Morningside student council intended to spend on its bench was redirected to another project. The students who helped bring the Buddy Bench to Morningside Elementary were honored last month during the Leadership Hardin County’s graduation banquet.
Morningside got its bench just as the school year ended, but Hayes said students there already were being trained in how to use the bench.
“If you’re feeling lonely or left out, you would sit on the bench. We’ve trained specific spotters – and hopefully everyone will become a spotter – and their job will be to watch and see if someone’s there and talk to them or invite them to join them,” she said. “We even had a drill in case there were students who didn’t want to be the first one to use it.”
Buddy Benches are sprouting up at schools across Kentucky. At New Highland Elementary (Hardin County), a boy led a drive to install a bench as an Eagle Scout project. At Perryville Elementary (Boyle County), 5th-grade students purchased a bench with money they raised during the school year by creating items to sell.
At Hardinsburg Elementary (Breckinridge County), benches designed and built by students at Breckinridge County Area Technology Center were dedicated in memory of two fallen Kentucky State Police troopers and a late teacher at the school. At Harlan Elementary (Harlan Independent), 2nd-grade students spearheaded a project that included researching how to build the benches and writing letters.
Hayes, who just completed her 13th year as a teacher and her third year as the student council adviser, said she thinks the number of students with limited social skills is on the rise.
“I see a lot of kids who don’t have the skills to know how to enter a group or enter a game, and they become loners because of that,” she said. “For even one child to feel left out is one too many.”
MORE INFO …
Laura Hayes firstname.lastname@example.org
Buddy Bench buddybench.org