Looking for a friend? Have a seat on the Buddy Bench

Posing with Star Hill Elementary students in back row from left, PTO President Shannon Hardee, PTO Vice President Jen Forbes, Assistant Principal Jean Allen, PTO member Kristy Mast, PTO Treasurer Tim Morris and Principal Nichole Kurz-McDowell at the Buddy Bench on the playground. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — One day on the playground at Star Hill Elementary School in Dover, second grader Mackenzie Reynolds found herself alone, without a friend.

Instead of having to try to work her way into a group of kids she didn’t know, there was an easier way to hoist the flag of friendship: the Buddy Bench.

“If you don’t have a friend to play with, you can go sit on the Buddy Bench and someone will come to ask you if you want to play with them,” she said. “After I sat on the bench, someone came over and asked me to play. We swung on the swing set and we walked and talked.”

The Star Hill Elementary School Buddy Bench was the product of a parent-teacher organization (PTO) lead project. Star Hill Elementary School PTO president Shannon Hardee was inspired to bring the bench to Caesar Rodney School District by a Facebook video she saw of a similar bench.

“We saw it and just started texting one another about it and decided to do it for the school,” she said.

PTO members were able to secure several donations to make the project possible. Lowe’s donated the wood, Sherwin Williams donated paint and a friend of one PTO member built the bench.

“We set it up in the first few weeks of the school year,” said Ms. Hardee. “We painted it and had all the kids put their fingerprints on it with blue paint so they could kind of take ownership of it.”

Fourth-grader Sarah Meyers and other Star Hill Elementary students walk toward the Buddy Bench on the playground. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Although the bench seems to be working quite well — Ms. Hardee said her own daughter befriended a boy who was sitting on it the first day of its arrival — the PTO agrees that even if it weren’t being used, it’s a symbol of kindness on the playground.

“It’s a great way to get the kids thinking about spreading their generosity,” said Ms. Hardee.

School principal Nicole Kurz-McDowell said the nearly 500 students at Star Hill Elementary are already among the most thoughtful she’s ever worked with, but the Buddy Bench adds an extra dimension.

“This is the fifth school I’ve worked at, and these kids are by far the nicest,” she said. “When I first got here, I was blown away because when I’d ask them how their day was going, they’d ask me how mine was going, too — that’s surprising from an 8-year-old.”

Even though the playground is large and hosts about 100 students at a time, no one ends up sitting on the bench long, said Ms. Kurz-McDowell.

“The kids are very cognizant — they’re always watching to see if someone sits on the bench,” she said.

First-grader Audriana Crockett is proof of that.

“I always watch the Buddy Bench,” she said. “A few days ago a girl named Carmen sat on it. She was so sad. I went over to her, because I saw her first, and asked her if she wanted to play. She said yes, and we had fun together.”

The school didn’t exactly need the bench, according to Ms. Hardee, because there haven’t been any endemic issues with bullying or children feeling excluded, but the PTO, school staff and students all seem pleased to have it as a part of their playground.

“We just saw it and thought, what a great thing to have on your playground,” she said. “We hope that it ends up being a catalyst for other schools — maybe other schools will consider it too.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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