Bullying can occur in both the day camp and overnight camp settings. Many children attend camp during the middle school years, when children are most at risk for bullying and being bullied. The complicated and unique social interactions of the camp environment, where children spend extensive hours eating, playing, and, in overnight camp, sleeping together, can often increase these risks.

Children attending camp are susceptible to a number of potential bullying situations. New campers, campers who perform poorly, and campers who struggle to make friends or appear different from others are particularly vulnerable to becoming victims of bullying. Bullying episodes may consist of exclusion by cabin mates, the creation of rumors about a fellow camper, taunting during a sports game, sexual harassment during shower time, or physical tormenting during periods such as “free time.” 

Bullying can occur even before camp begins or after camp has ended for the day or summer. Campers communicate by instant messaging, e-mail, social networking sites, and cell phone, discussing bunk or group selections and devising plans to create cliques or leave others out. Children may gossip about new campers, spread rumors about a campmate, or post inappropriate and hurtful content about a camper or counselor on the Internet.

To prevent and target bullying in a camp setting, camp directors and counselors must create a positive and caring community. A successful camp environment occurs when directors and counselors set an appropriate tone, gain and give respect, build relationships, and set clear rules and expectations for behavior. Some children who attend camp are bullies in their school or community. If camps set the right tone and create a positive and respectful environment, bullies have a chance to change their behavior and engage in more positive interactions with their peers.

Creating positive relationships is key to preventing bullying at camp. Counselors’ actions toward campers, and toward one another, can either set the tone for respectful, inclusive relationships or can contribute to an environment where bullying is likely to occur. It is essential for directors and counselors to build relationships with, and earn respect from, their campers. These relationships help campers feel comfortable voicing their concerns and seeking help when bullying incidents occur.

Counselor orientation is vital in teaching bullying prevention techniques. Because camp counselors are often young adults themselves, with little experience dealing with children’s social issues or knowledge of bullying, bullying education is essential. Counselors should be taught what bullying is, the different types of bullyinghow to recognize it when it occurs, and how to intervene appropriately.

It is important that counselors take action when they observe behaviors that may eventually lead to bullying. If counselors hear about or see bullying, they should intervene immediately. If an incident is ignored, it will escalate quickly. Counselors should meet regularly with directors to report and discuss issues that arise.

There are a variety of ways counselors can directly engage children in bullying prevention. Camp activities such as drama are great opportunities for using role-playing activities to help campers practice bullying prevention skills. Cabin chats, all-camp meetings, and campfire talks are ideal situations for campers and counselors to establish rules that promote respect, and discuss concerns about bullying behaviors or incidents. Directors and counselors should also set time aside to talk privately with children who may be targets of bullying or who may be participating in bullying. These approaches and activities will increase everyone’s commitment to and responsibility for creating an environment that discourages bullying behaviors and encourages positive, supportive interactions.

Specific Resources

Don’t Laugh at Me Camp Program. Developed by Operation Respect and Educators for Social Responsibility in 2000. Contains activities designed specifically to address bullying in camp settings.

Understanding Bullying Within the Camp Setting: Tips for Parents. From the Stop Bullying Now Program, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) (2006). Provides information and tips for parents on dealing with bullying in a camp setting.

Four articles from the American Camping Association’s Camping Magazine:

“Eyes on Bullying: What YOU Can Do to Prevent and Stop Bullying at Camp” by Kim Storey, Ed.D., May 2010.

“Cyberbullying: a ‘virtual’ camp nightmare?” by J. Haber and S. Haber, May 2007.

“Their Space or Yours? Social Networking Sites Bring Risks and Rewards to the Camp Community” by S. G. Wallace, September/October 2006. Includes sample policies for employees and campers and a sample letter to parents. 

“Camp: A perfect place to address bullying” by J. E. Hairston, May/June 2004. Presents the camp setting as a perfect environment for positive social change and working together to prevent bullying.