By Jackie Lupo
TIM LAMORTE/RIVERTOWNS ENTERPRISE
Second-graders use the playground during recess on Dec. 7.
ARDSLEY — Recess can be fun for some elementary school students, but stressful for newcomers or those who lack strong social skills. Hoping to promote a culture of kindness on the playground, Concord Road Elementary School recently joined two initiatives gathering steam all over the country: “Peaceful Playgrounds” and “Buddy Benches.” Both movements are aimed at combating bullying and playground misbehavior and replacing them with positive, inclusive play.
Beginning on Ardsley Cares Day in October, faculty, parent and student volunteers began transforming the school’s bus lot — the blacktop area in front of the clock entrance — into a Peaceful Playgrounds. Now, it’s an inviting 113-by-200 foot activity space with features such as brightly painted box ball courts, hopscotch grids, circles with numbers and letters, bowling lanes, and child-height basketball hoops. The space was designed collaboratively by the school staff and the community, and volunteers worked over multiple weekends to spread sealant, and then to chalk, stencil and paint the Peaceful Playground games on the blacktop. The effort was coordinated by Concord Road parents Nicole Minore and Jackie Piantini, who produced a scaled blueprint of the area and coordinated the efforts of the dozens of volunteers who brought the playground design to life.
The group used materials from Peaceful Playgrounds Inc., a California-based company that provides schools with resources for creating safe, positive school play spaces, such as guides for teachers and recess monitors, books of activities for students, webinars for school personnel, and do-it-yourself stencils for transforming blacktop surfaces. The painted “games” can be used in conjunction with common equipment such as balls, bowling pins, hula-hoops and bean bags. Last month, the students learned about some of the ways the games could be used during their physical education classes, but during recess they’re free to be creative. “They were really excited,” said physical education teacher Julie Ford, who noted that students soon came up with their own ideas for playground games using the painted surfaces.
Supplies were purchased with a grant of about $5,000 from the Ardsley Education Foundation. The basketball hoops were installed with funds from the recent school improvement bond, which included various playground renovations.
“We’re obviously very excited,” said Principal Melissa Szymanski. She and the physical education teachers visited Chappaqua’s successful Peaceful Playground before designing their own. Szymanski said the playground offered a way for kids to learn “to self-structure their play.”
“At recess, kids’ play shifts very quickly,” she explained. “This allows us to support kids for whom entering play can be a little more difficult.”
On the blacktop near the doorway of the Peaceful Playground is a child-size bench, painted in the school colors of royal blue with bright yellow accents. It’s one of three Buddy Benches at Concord Road, one placed in each of three playgrounds and each decorated with a plaque that has a quote about friendship. The Peaceful Playground’s bench reads, “The greatest gift of life is friendship, and I have received it. —Hubert H. Humphrey.”
The school’s three Buddy Benches debuted two months ago, two years after a child from York, Pa., turned the furnishing into a must-have for hundreds of U.S. school playgrounds. In 2013, second-grader Christian Buck saw a picture of a bench that a school in Germany had placed in its playground as a “safe place” for shy children to sit on, as a signal to other children that they were looking for someone to play with. Christian thought it was a great idea, and asked the principal of his school, Roundtown Elementary, to install a Buddy Bench there. News of the bench went viral, eventually appearing on The Huffington Post.
“The story about this little boy, Christian, and the Buddy Benches popped up on my news feed,” said Concord Road second-grade teacher Jill Rogovic. On Election Day last year, the school planned to let students vote on ideas for making its community more inclusive, and Rogovic suggested that Buddy Benches be included on the ballot. They turned out to get the most votes.
To the staff, it was important for the students to feel a sense of ownership for the Buddy Benches. The PTA stepped in and paid for kits to make three small-scale wood benches with old-fashioned, carved metal legs. Fourth-grade members of the Student Council put them together with the help of tech teacher Dave Ponterio in his woodworking shop at Ardsley Middle School. Some of the younger students did the painting.
The benches fit right in with the increasing number of anti-bullying initiatives established by school districts. They’re especially appropriate in New York, where schools have been required to create anti-bullying and inclusivity programs since the “Dignity for All Students Act” took effect in 2012.
Of course, it wasn’t realistic just to introduce some decorative benches and tell shy kids that if they sat on them, they could expect friends to come their way. “It’s hard for kids to learn how to communicate among themselves without teachers intervening,” Ford said. So, the staff organized Buddy Bench social skills training, including role-playing exercises. The students were taught how and why to sit on the bench (for example, if they wanted someone to play with, or if they felt like starting up a group game). They were also taught what to do if they sat on the bench and nobody asked them to play (get off and try again later), and what to do if they saw someone sitting alone on the bench. “They all started practicing going over to the bench and saying, ‘Play with us,’” Rogovic said.
The benches will be brought into the gym with the onset of winter weather.