By Sahara Lyon
Colleen Nottingham, the visual art teacher at Chaires Elementary School, knew at the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year that she wanted to add color to her school’s campus but wasn’t sure how to do it. When she found examples of friendship benches online, she thought it would be a perfect, colorful addition to her school’s playground, but she was unable to purchase a bench using existing school funds. So, when COCA awarded Nottingham an FY23 Arts Education Grant, thanks in part to the Duke Energy Foundation, she knew what she would do.
A friendship bench is where students can sit down when they need a friend or support. A student will see someone on the friendship bench and know that student needs a friend, compelling the first student to sit and talk with them and extend support during a time of need. A friendship bench is supposed to be a bright, happy spot on a school’s campus, and Nottingham’s fifth-grade students certainly delivered.
Nottingham first looked for a bench with the correct material to be painted on. After she and her principal sent some options back and forth, the perfect one was found and ordered. Nottingham worked with the fifth graders in her art club/art elective, and they dedicated the second half of the school year to the friendship bench project. She blocked off sections of the bench and assigned one student per section. First, Nottingham tasked students with mocking up a design on paper before sketching it on the bench. When painting their designs, she first limited the students to three starting colors; then, as the students got more familiar with the materials, she increased it to six before letting them have free reign over the selection of twenty-six colors. This step-by-step process resulted in a fully self-functioning project in which students felt comfortable and empowered to finish their designs independently.
Nottingham referred to the friendship bench as a campus beautification project, but it also creates a legacy for graduating fifth graders. The time, work, and dedication that students put into the bench resulted in a beautiful product and a sense of ownership over their campus and education experience. Nottingham stressed the values of friendship, care, and collaboration while the students were working on the bench. She remarked, “I had two fifth graders; one of them was having trouble with a little part of their square, and the other one asked, ‘Can I help you with that?’ The other student said, ‘Yeah, come add those details, thank you.’ It was really sweet to see.” The back of the bench reads “Where our community begins,” which is the motto of Chaires’ principal, Richard Holmes. That motto reinforces that students are an integral part of their community, both inside and outside of school.
When asked about the importance of arts education, Nottingham stated, “Art is so interpretive, your work doesn’t have to look like the person sitting next to you for it to be good… if students feel like they’re shining in something, it’s a big deal.” Art projects such as Nottingham’s friendship bench allow students to try out new techniques, activities, and ideas, and that’s incredibly important for younger students.
Nottingham’s project is another example of the importance of arts education funding for young students. Her project would not have been possible without COCA’s Arts Education Grant, made possible thanks to the Duke Energy Foundation. This beautification project will adorn Chaires’ playground for many years, making it an exciting addition for students and teachers.
Look for the article on the Tallahassee Democrat’s website, coming at a later date.