Written by: Dr. Andrea Breen & Francesca Kurtz
School should be a place where all children feel included, cared for and valued. Unfortunately, school playgrounds are complicated social environments and most children will experience peer exclusion during their time at school. Sometimes exclusion is related to relational aggression and other forms of bullying. Often children exclude others without any intent to do harm (Wainryb et al., 2014); for example, children might avoid playing with others because they want to spend time with a favourite friend or they might exclude a child whose behaviour they find disruptive. Children with behavioural challenges are especially vulnerable to social isolation and long-term consequences for mental health (Matthews et al., 2015). However, while peer exclusion may be ubiquitous, it does not mean that any child needs to suffer. We can create more caring school communities where children are not isolated and lonely on the playground.
Recently, my children reminded me that one of the keys to creating more inclusive, caring schools is recognizing that it’s not the grownups’ job to simply create the change we want to see for our children, we need to do it with them.
Francesca (age 8), Joaquim (age 6) and their friend George (almost 9) developed a plan to cultivate friendship and inclusion at their school. The “Friendship Stairs” are very similar to the “Buddy Bench”, an idea started by a boy at an elementary school in Pennsylvania who was inspired by a friendship bench in Germany. Buddy Benches are starting to crop up in schools all over the world. It’s a beautiful, simple idea that resonates with everyone who understands the heartbreak of social isolation. It’s also a wonderful way to involve children as leaders in making their schools happy and safe places for them to learn and grow. This is Francesca’s story about the Friendship Stairs.
The Friendship Stairs help kids make friends. If you’re a kid who has no one to play with at recess you can go to the Friendship Stairs. The idea is that someone will come and play with you.
When I was littler in grade 1 I had no one to play with. It didn’t feel good. I was in a new school and I didn’t know anyone. A girl was mean to me. I felt lonely. Now I’m in grade 3 and I decided to do something about it. It meant a lot to me for kids to have someone to play with because I had a hard experience with not having anyone to play with. Me and my brother made a plan. We drew a picture of a bench that had enough places for 5 kids to sit and we took the picture to the principal. We showed her the picture and told her about the idea and she loved it. We met with someone else who works at the school and she thought it would be a better idea to have stairs because it would take a long time to get the bench and we agreed with that idea. I invited my friend George to help us. We made posters about the stairs and put them up all over school. We made an announcement on the morning announcements and me, my brother and my friend George made a presentation at the school assembly to tell everybody about the Friendship Stairs. We said this:
“Did you know there is a place you can go if you are lonely or have no one to play with at recess? There is! It is the Friendship Stairs. The Friendship Stairs are near the structure. If you see someone waiting at the Friendship Stairs invite them to play!”
A lot of people have been using the Friendship Stairs. I hope it will make some kids’ lives better.
Building an inclusive, connected world means finding ways to help everyone make their own contributions. My children’s wonderful school principal immediately recognized the potential of the Friendship Stairs for cultivating a caring school community and she implemented the idea quickly in a way that allowed the kids to emerge as leaders. It has been a profoundly positive learning opportunity for Francesca, Joaquim and George—for nurturing creative problem-solving, learning to communicate their ideas, experiencing how it feels to take risks that are scary and entirely worth it, deepening compassion, strengthening self-esteem, and proving that the real work of creating a better world isn’t just for the grownups.
Suggested books to teach children about friendship:
Francesca Kurtz recently turned 8. She is in grade 3 in French Immersion and lives with her family in Toronto. Francesca loves creating art and writing stories. She also enjoys Lego, capoeira, swimming, climbing trees, ice-skating really fast, being upside down, and playing with her brother.
Andrea Breen is an Assistant Professor of Family Relations and Human Development at the University of Guelph. Her research focuses on story-telling and implications for well-being, resilience and social change, and the use of technology to enhance well-being in children, youth and families. Dr. Breen has extensive experience developing innovative educational programs in school, mental health and detention settings. Dr. Breen completed her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology and Education at OISE/UT. She also holds a Masters degree in Risk and Prevention from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Bachelor of Education from McGill University.
Refs for Academic Articles
Matthews, T., Danese, A., Wertz, J., Ambler, A., Kelly, M., Diver, A., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T., Arseneault, L., (2015). Social isolation and mental health at primary and secondary school entry: A longitudinal cohort study. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 54, 225-232.
Wainryb, C., Komolova, M., & Brehl, B. (2014). Children’s narrative accounts and judgements of their own peer exclusion experiences. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 60, 461-490.