Grade-schoolers decorate Buddy and Peace Benches for the playground

Lake Elmo Elementary first grade students with a little help from their third grade buddies got to work painting Buddy and Peace Benches May 2. The benches will be dedicated at the playground May 23. Peace signs, flowers, butterflies as well as peaceful words adorned the Peace Bench.

First-graders had colorful hands while working on their Buddy and Peace Benches.

Artist-in-Residence Karron Nottingham helps out a first-grader as she adds her hand print to the Buddy Bench.

First- and third-grade students tried to stay still as Lake Elmo Elementary School’s artist-in-residence, Karron Nottingham, told them the rules for painting their school’s new Buddy Bench and Peace Bench. 

“We have to [paint] peace signs not Mercedes Benz signs,” Nottingham explained. 

The Buddy Bench is intended to create a place on the school playground for children to go when they feel left out. As other children on the playground notice, they can invite that child to play.

First-grade teacher Annelise Aaro said that when she watches the kids on the playground,  she’s noticed that children don’t know how to ask to be included. “They need a place where they don’t have to use words,” she said. 

“It’s a nice way, a structured way, for kids to reach out to someone they may not know or include someone who maybe is not feeling that way,” added Principal Stephen Gorde.

The Peace Bench is intended to give students a quiet place on the playground to relax and intentionally take time away from play while still being outside.

“I think playground and recess time can be stressful for kids,” Gorde said. He explained that there can be about 100 students on the playground at one time, and that can be overwhelming for some kids. “Sometimes they need a place where they can decompress or calm down.”

On May 2, Aaro’s first-grade class and their third-grade buddies decorated the benches in preparation for the dedication program planned for Family Fun Night on May 23. 

The Family Fun Night will include the usual games, but at 6:30 p.m. students, teachers, families and community members will gather on the playground for a 10-minute dedication which will conclude with a “bubble blessing” where the children will try to blow as many bubbles as they can around each bench.

Oak Park Elementary and Andersen Elementary are the only other schools in Stillwater Area district to have Buddy Benches. Lake Elmo Elementary will be the first school in the district with a Peace Bench.

The idea for the Buddy Bench originally came from a second-grader in Pennsylvania who implemented it in his school in 2013, but the idea came to Lake Elmo Elementary after Aaro saw Buddy Benches and Peace Benches on Pinterest.

“I fell in love with the idea and thought this was perfect for Lake Elmo,” Aaro said. “[The students] are very inclusive, but that’s the motto of our school.” She added that she’s hopeful the benches will help reduce misbehaviors on the playground.

Aaro has taken on most of the work associated with the project. She applied last fall for a grant from Partnership Plan to fund the project. After the school received the grant, she bought the supplies, and together with Sarah Voigt, a Lake Elmo PTA Board member, and Voigt’s husband, they primed, painted and assembled the benches. After the kids are finished decorating them, Aaro also plans to apply polyurethane over the paint for protection.

“It’s been a really big process,” Aaro said.

Because she has taken the lead on this project, her first-grade class was selected to decorate the benches with their third-grade buddies. 

According to Gorde, Lake Elmo Elementary pairs younger students with older students as “buddies” to teach empathy, compassion and understanding. Both the older and younger buddies are given opportunities to gain leadership skills, and they are able to build a relationship with another student to whom they may not have otherwise reached out.

When one first-grader was asked what he thinks of the benches he replied, “That they’re cool. That it is my favorite color.” His favorite color is blue and he especially liked the Peace Bench because that is the background color. The first-grader’s third-grade friend painted the boy’s hand blue and helped him put his handprint on the green Buddy Bench.

The students painted multi-colored peace signs, flowers and butterflies on the Peace Bench. Multi-colored handprints covered the Buddy Bench, which was also decorated with an inspirational message: “The best way to have a friend is to be one.”

“This part is the fun part,” Aaro said about the kids decorating the benches.

“This part makes it worth it,” Voigt added. 

Then Aaro exclaimed, “No, no. Honey, stop! We don’t use the big brushes,” as she dashed off to prevent a sloppy green paint mess.


Aundrea Kinney can be reached at 651-748-7822 or

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