A little white, wooden bench stands on the edge of the playground at Northwoods Elementary in Hutchinson, Minnesota. On a sunny, September day while children play on the monkey bars, swings and basketball court, it sits empty. The bench is called the “Friendship Bench” and the students can quickly tell you how it works.
“It means if someone doesn’t have a friend, they can sit on the bench,” Izzie Gaslin, a second grader said. “Someone will see them and come ask them to play.”
“I’ve sat on the bench before, and I’ve also got people off the bench,” said second grader Stella Trana.
The bench was the idea of Northwoods parent Lisa Long. “I was watching the news and cooking supper one evening,” Long said. “It came up on the news. I thought I would love that for Northwoods.”
Long watched the story again online and, with a little more research, found the book The Friendship Bench by Whitney Dineen. She mentioned the idea to head teacher Jamie Madden and received a positive response. Her husband, Mike Long, often passed a house selling handmade benches for sale on his way to work. He ordered one, and the bench was soon ready.
The bench was introduced to the students on the first day of school. The students were challenged with the concept of inviting those on the bench to join their play. “The kids stood up and formed lines to sign their names on the bench,” Long said. “I got tears in my eyes. I prayed a lot about it. I look for different ways for kids to think of others.”
“What I like is it provides a visual clue, without anything being said, that the students need to be inclusive of everyone,” said Jamie Madden, grades 5-8 teacher.
“I see it used at least three to four times a week in my class, especially with the new students,” said Kari Schebo, who teaches grades 2-4. “When someone feels like everyone is in a group and they weren’t invited to a group, they sit down and within thirty seconds, someone comes and invites them to play.”
Second grader Florinda Rivera put it simply, “I like it because I ask people if they want to play with me and they say ‘Yes.’”
–John Bedell is the Education Superintendent for the Minnesota Conference.