Everyone longs for companionship—children especially. Grown-ups can pursue any number of options for connecting with others: joining a club, volunteering, even visiting virtual pals on Facebook. But when a child feels shy, lonely, or excluded at school, where can she go? Who can he seek out? What options do kids have to feel less isolated when they watch the other boys and girls play together at recess?
One small study found that as many as 80 percent of children had periods of feeling lonely at school. And, whether it’s a consequence or a cause, a passive attitude toward social interactions was often cited as a factor.
That’s where the buddy bench, which encourages active social engagement and empathy, might help. “A physical buddy bench is a brightly-colored bench that is placed in a school yard,” says Sam Synnott, CEO and co-founder of Buddy Bench in Kilkenny, Ireland. “If a child is feeling a little bit out of place or they have nobody to play with, they sit on this bench as an indication to their peers to come over and ask them to play.”
Sam, who is a mom herself, says that while the bench is the physical item that brings young children together, from pre-schoolers of 2 and 3 years of age to ages 9 and 10, what’s at least as important is teaching children what it’s there for, how to use it, and making them aware of their positive feelings when they do.
Through stories about animal characters feeling emotions, thinking thoughts, and doing things that mirror what kids can think, feel, and do, Buddy Bench’s lessons help children understand and accept their own thoughts and feelings, and realize that these can change from moment to moment, day to day—and that’s just fine. The older children also get something akin to mindfulness training, so they become aware of what exclusion and inclusion feel like in their bodies—and also how good doing something kind, empathic, and positive can feel.
Sam says the children readily accept the training, and understand why it’s important to them. “If you see somebody sitting on the bench, it's actually your job to go over and say, ‘How are you? Are you okay?’ Because, Tom could be sitting on the bench one day, and you could be sitting on it another day.”
Buddy Bench sends a psychotherapist to each school to offer a workshop and leave behind workbooks for the kids to help them understand and internalize the ideas. The benches, themselves, are constructed by retired men who volunteer in a program called Men Sheds.
The concept has enjoyed wide acceptance in Ireland, where Buddy Bench’s program and benches are now in 266 of the 3,200 primary schools. “We have reached 40,000 children,” she says.
Beyond the borders of the emerald isle, Sam says, there is current interest in Dubai, Madrid, and Westminster. And she hopes one day to take the buddy bench’s message of friendship, empathy, and inclusion global.
For more information about the Buddy Bench, please see: https://www.buddybench.ie/book-store
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