If you want to get kids in 4PreK talking you need to ask them about their buddies.
“My buddy’s name is Victoria.”
“My buddy’s name is Mateo.”
“I don’t know my buddy’s name, but I like him.”
Immediately the conversation ping pongs from making wreaths with buddies, to drawing with them, to how old their buddies are, to which buddies are too big to swing on the monkey bars. Everyone has something to say about their buddy, and everyone is very enthusiastic about the subject.
Each fall fourth and fifth graders from the Lower School are partnered with a Beginning School buddy to work with throughout the year. It’s a lot of fun. It’s also rooted in sound pedagogy.
The buddy program at Rowland Hall has been in existence for decades. Each fall fourth and fifth graders from the Lower School are partnered with a Beginning School buddy to work with throughout the year. The pair write notes to each other, do projects together, and learn about each other’s interests. It’s a lot of fun. It’s also rooted in sound pedagogy.
“We know from research that kids benefit from mixed aged play and learning opportunities,” said Brittney Hansen, Beginning School assistant principal. “Both the older and younger groups are given ways to grow socially, emotionally, and intellectually.”
Rowland Hall is lucky enough to provide a perfect environment for such learning. Not many schools range in age from preschool to senior high. The fact that students start at such a young age and are part of the community for such a long time allows relationships to form and bonds to build that otherwise are not possible. The buddy program underscores that and starts fostering feelings of community and belonging at the earliest opportunity.
“This program is a great example of how we capitalize on our mixed age community,” said Brittney. “And the buddy relationship doesn’t stop at the end of the year. These are relationships that are sustained and grow and build in time.”
“Most of the kids develop a very strong friendship with their buddies,” said Isabelle Buhler, 4PreK lead teacher. “And when students who were ‘little’ buddies return in fourth and fifth grade as ‘big’ buddies they are very excited because they remember those relationships. They remember that they had a special connection.”
That feeling of connection and that beginning of community building is the prime focus for the PreK students. They are learning that there is a lot more happening at the school than the daily goings on in their classrooms—and they are learning it in a very personalized way.
“This is a one-on-one interaction,” said Isabelle. “We may have other all-school activities but this is more focused and personal. It’s one of the deeper connections we have.”
While community is the focus for the little buddies, the lessons being learned by the older students are, understandably, more complex. “This is an opportunity for them to begin seeing themselves as mentors and leaders,” said Emma Wellman, principal of the beginning and lower schools. “They have to practice a great deal of patience and empathy and learn to navigate different relationship dynamics.”
This is an opportunity to begin seeing themselves as mentors and leaders. They have to practice a great deal of patience and empathy and learn to navigate different relationship dynamics.”—Emma Wellman, Beginning School and Lower School principal
Anyone who has ever dealt with a high-energy, demanding preschooler knows just how challenging those dynamics can be. But the Lower School students are up to the task and greet the opportunity with gusto. “Sometimes they can be a little hard to be around,” said fourth grader Jack G. “But they can also be really fun and energetic.”
“My buddy decides what we play,” said fifth grader Viviene D. “I ask if she wants to do and then she takes me somewhere random and we play.”
The big buddy/little buddy dynamic isn’t the only one for the older kids to examine. Being in a leadership role gives them a new view of the responsibilities and issues their teachers may face. “They learn a lot of empathy for adults,” said Jen Bourque, fifth-grade teacher. “They also start using language they have learned and stored away. I’ll hear students saying things like ‘We didn’t clean up. We moved on, but we didn’t clean up,’ when interacting with their buddies.”
Those types of interactions were absent last year as we locked down and worked through the uncertain days of the pandemic. The absence of the buddy program was acutely felt among both students and teachers in a time already filled with losses. “The buddy program is something students ask about each year before it even starts,” said Brittney. “When we were able to reintroduce it there was a lot of excitement and a feeling of relief.”
4PreK student Mille P. may sum up everyone’s feelings best. “When the big buddies come I’m really excited,” she said. “I just want to run to them but I know I have to wait. I just want to run because I love my big buddy.”