We Will Accompany Them On The Beaches, On The Playgrounds, In The Parks And At The Opera!

After I posted last week about how English towns installation of chat benches aligned with other stories I had covered about organizations trying to create personal connections between strangers, one of my neighbors, Regina Sweeney messaged me on LinkedIn about a study about buddy benches conducted in elementary schools. (I think this is the first time I have had someone I see on a fairly regular basis read my blog and send me a link.)

A number of schools use buddy benches to help kids make connections. If you are lonely at recess, you sit there and other kids are supposed to come over and invite you to play. There hadn’t been a lot of research done on the effectiveness of these benches so a group set out to conduct one at a school in Utah.

They found that introducing the benches reduced the number of solitary students. As part of the study, they removed the benches for a couple weeks and then returned them to the playground. When they were removed, the number of solitary students started to return to the baseline number observed before the benches were introduced. When the benches were reintroduced, the number of solitary students decreased.

While you can’t necessarily make assumptions about adults from the observation of a small group of elementary school kids, this result seemed to point to the usefulness of some sort of mechanism to facilitate connecting people. Providing people with a way to signal their willingness and desire to connect was useful.

There were kids that abused the benches. Some kids would sit on the bench and then rebuff all overtures to play. Teachers observed that kids who were normally very social seemed to sit on the bench to call attention to themselves. There were also those who made fun of those sitting on the bench.

Many students thought the benches were a good idea, but for other people.

“It appears that while students liked the idea of a buddy bench at their school, many may have thought of it as an intervention to help other students and not necessarily themselves.”

Kids in the upper grades (4th-6th) thought it was only useful for kids in the lower grades. Some students felt that they were introduced too late in the school year after cliques had been formed.

I imagine these general perceptions about the utility of benches might be more deeply entrenched in adults. Though I would also say adults might be more apt to resolve to participate in one role or the other if they knew the goal was to reverse a trend toward social isolation.

One take away from the study that I think is applicable for people of any age is the necessity to consistently make people aware of the program. Every teacher prepared their students for the introduction of the buddy benches and the benches were placed outside 100% of the time during the intervention stage. However, the principal reported only encouraging their use in morning announcements 80% of the time and the teachers monitoring the playground were often too preoccupied with other playground activities to seek out solitary students to encourage them to use the benches.

Those conducting the study felt these situations kept the project from being as successful as it might have been.

I would think the necessity of repeatedly communicating the availability of chatting/buddy programs would even be greater for arts organizations given that the attendees change for every event and they aren’t being exposed the availability of these initiatives everyday the way kids at school are.

I had written about the buddy seating program I had created at my previous theater which paired people in the audience chamber. As I read this study, I wondered if it might be good to have “meet someone new” seating in a public place like the lobby as well. People probably aren’t going to arrive alone at an event seeking a companion, but people new to the experience might welcome the opportunity to chat with those who are equally clueless about what to do or with someone who can offer some advice. Having a bench or row of chairs specifically to that purpose might be useful.

While this seems obvious in retrospect, it only occurred to me as I was re-reading the study and saw a line about the buddy benches being useful as”…a reinforcement by giving students a place to gather should they feel intimidated when seeking out play activities on their own.” This resonated with my recollection of a post Holly Mulcahy made yesterday about people who ruin the concert experience for newbies by enforcing a behavioral orthodoxy.

It wouldn’t eliminate the glares at clapping in the wrong place, but a buddy bench would give people a place to ask “Sooooo…I what’s the deal with not clapping at the end of some songs, but jumping to your feet at the end of other songs?”

If you are involved with education and want to bring buddy benches to your school, you need to read the study because I didn’t touch upon even 10% of what was involved and what they felt needed more rigorous study.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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