The school playground can be a lonely place for a child if they haven’t got anyone to play with. But a special type of bench is helping pupils make friends and get people talking about bigger issues too.
One day, during her usual chat with her eight-year-old son about school, Tracey Cooney got an answer she didn’t expect.
“There was nobody to play with. Everyone was playing in their own little groups,” he confided.
She was surprised because he was usually outgoing and confident. But two of his friends had been sick that day, so they weren’t at playtime.
Cooney felt a little upset, but remembered something she had seen on social media and wondered if it could help children in his situation. It’s called a Buddy Bench.
The idea is simple – if a child feels lonely, they can go to the bench as a signal that they need someone to play with. Another child will see them, go and talk to them and include them in their games.
So Cooney asked other parents and the head teacher at Castlemartyr National School in Cork, Ireland, whether they would be interested in getting one – their answer was, “Yes.”
Also known as friendship benches, these pieces of playground furniture have been around for a while, in various countries.
But the people who make them in Ireland are trying to do something different with them.
“We use the bench as a reminder for children of things like communication, mutual support and opening up about feelings,” says Judith Ashton, a psychotherapist and co-founder of social enterprise Buddy Bench Ireland.
- Learn more about Buddy Benches in the latest People Fixing the World podcast from the BBC World Service
Her team delivers a day of tailored workshops about empathy, built around the arrival of the bench.
There are role-plays and children learn a song that reminds them to “look up, look around and look out for each other”.
It’s something that’s easy to forget, in an age when even young children can be engrossed in smartphones, Ashton says.
Apart from reducing social isolation and improving mental wellbeing, the hope is that the benches can tackle another problem found, to some degree, in most schools: bullying.
“I’ve been teaching 39 years,” says Jane Flannery, the principal at Castlemartyr National School.
“When I was a younger teacher we were more blasé about it and told people to get on with things. But I don’t think that’s good enough any more, we need to try something different.”
For her, Buddy Benches are that “something different”.
But do children actually use the bench? And are they worried about how it makes them look?
“They don’t see it as stigmatised,” says Sinead McGilloway, director of the Centre for Mental Health and Community Research at Maynooth University, who led a study of 117 pupils at three schools which have benches.
Forty per cent of the children she questioned said they had used the bench, and 90% said if they saw someone else sitting on it they would talk to them.
However, a small sample of parents did raise the concern of stigma.
And this is where the bigger aim of the project comes in, because the Buddy Bench team wants to tackle a problem that affects both young and old in Irish society: a reluctance to confront mental health.
“People spoke out of the corner of their mouth about it,” says Michelle O’Brien, one of the workshop leaders. Thinking back to her childhood, she says a mental health issue was seen as a fault in the family.
“Instead of the word depression ever being used, it was, ‘Their nerves are at ’em.’ It was a lot of factors, I think religion was a massive part of it.”
The Buddy Bench team aims to reach every pupil in Ireland, seeing this as an early intervention to tackle mental health problems across the generations.
Mental Health Stigma in Ireland: Studies and Statistics
40% of Irish people would conceal a mental health problem from family, friends and colleagues (The Green Ribbon Report, 2017)
64% of Irish people believe that being treated for a mental health difficulty is seen as a sign of personal failure (survey by St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, 2017)
52% of Irish people have experience of people with mental health problems (The Healthy Ireland Survey by the Department of Health, 2016)
In a symbolic gesture, the Buddy Bench Ireland team has its benches made by members of the Men’s Shed movement.
There are more than 400 Men’s Sheds in Ireland. They are a kind of hobby club where men, usually middle-aged or older, come together to make things.
It’s proved a lifeline for many coping with issues such as divorce and bereavement, by helping them to open up and talk about what they are going through.
John Fitzgerald, from the Carlow Men’s Shed, is one of the people who handmakes the Buddy Benches.
“I had a religious-based education and they brought us up to be men, in other words to be self-sufficient. If you were in trouble you just put up and shut up.”
The Buddy Bench would have been a nice idea for a quiet boy like him, he reckons.
Like a Men’s Shed, it is “a safe space” where you can speak about “difficulties, vulnerabilities and problems in your life”, he says. “It would have been beneficial for our generation.”
After the workshops have taken place at Castlemartyr National School, a small group of pupils are chosen to carry the bench into the playground.
By the time they reach the far end, a huge number of pupils has flocked around them.
A grand, triumphal procession slowly takes shape.
When the bench is finally put into place next to a wall, you can’t even see it any more.
There are too many excited children swarming to be the first to sit on it.
You can follow writer Dougal Shaw on Twitter: @dougalshawbbc
You can listen to Dougal’s full report on Buddy Benches in the latest People Fixing the World podcast from the BBC World Service