At Komarek School a kid should never be lonely, at least at recess. That’s because, thanks to a former student, the K-8 school in North Riverside has six Buddy Benches on its playground.
A Buddy Bench is a bench where someone who feels left out, lonely, or just having a bad day can sit down. Students are taught to approach anyone sitting on a Buddy Bench and ask them to play with them or just talk.
Former Komarek student Erik Hartwig provided the Buddy Benches in 2016 as his Eagle Scout project. The Buddy Benches were installed at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year.
The Komarek playground is divided into three spaces: one for primary grade students, one for intermediate grade students, and one for junior high age students. Each area of the playground has two Buddy Benches.
“It’s just promoting everyone to include everyone,” said Komarek Assistant Principal Lisa Stalla. “That whole idea of inclusion and not being alone and just supporting each other when it’s needed is what we promote with them. It’s just a way our students are able to communicate their needs more to us so teachers pay attention to it, students pay attention to it.”
The Buddy Benches are especially good for new students, Stalla said. The concept of Buddy Benches came to the United States in 2013, according to a 2016 story in the Washington Post.
According to that story, Christian Bucks, a first-grader at Roundtree Elementary School in York, Pennsylvania, thought he was going to move to Germany because of his dad’s job. Christian and his mother were looking online at schools in Germany and found one with a Buddy Bench.
Although Christian’s family never did move to Germany, the little boy was so taken by the Buddy Bench concept that he suggested it to his principal. A Buddy Bench was installed at Roundtree in 2013 and the idea took off. Now there are an estimated 2,000 Buddy Benches at schools across the United States.
Sometimes kids at Komarek sit on the Buddy Benches because they are lonely or want someone to talk to or play with. But other times, especially for the older kids, they are just used as a place to sit and read a book or talk to friends.
“I have seen them used a handful of times, one or two times,” said Komarek social studies teacher Steve Cadwallader, who supervises junior high recess. “Most of them just use it to sit and read and chill out.”
Younger kids seem to use the Buddy Benches for their intended purpose more frequently than older kids.
Maria Igelman, the school secretary, supervises younger kids at recess. She has seen the Buddy Benches being used in a variety of ways — sometimes for kids who just want to chat, but other times by a child who is feeling lonely or left out.
When a Landmark reporter observed recess at Komarek one day the last week the Buddy Benches were lightly used. One boy was contentedly reading a book while others ran and played close by. At another, two girls chatted.
And on the primary grade playground one younger girl sat down alone, looking sad, until another girl came over and talked to her. They then left the Buddy Bench with one girl’s arm draped around the other’s shoulder.
“The students have really enjoyed having them on our campus,” Stalla said. “We do feel that they are used across all grade levels.”