"Don't Laugh at Me" Coming to Camps: Program Helps You Create a Ridicule-Free Zone at Camp

by Marla Coleman

The core culture of the camp experience has always been a community of caring, compassion, and cooperation. Now, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary adds an additional passion and a new dimension to camp's mission, giving song and extra heart to the efforts. By harnessing the power of music and art to transform, inspire, and build skills in children, Peter has created the "Don't Laugh at Me" project for use at ACA-accredited camps.

This multimedia resource is loaded with activities and ideas to help camp directors provide an even more just and caring environment for children. Peter, a former camper and counselor who refers to his camp experiences as an epiphany, underscores, "Know that you are far from alone in this work. A virtual movement is gathering strength as more and more educators agree that children must . . . acquire the tools to help them grow up to be ethical, compassionate citizens of strong character, healthy self-esteem and humane sensibilities."

Peter Yarrow's resource is a priceless package containing a CD, a video, and a guide, which focuses on giving children the experiences of learning in a caring community that is characterized by a healthy expression of feelings, compassion, and cooperation; the creative resolution of conflicts; and an appreciation of differences. The activities are designed to give camps tools to raise awareness, to explore feelings, and to help children connect to themselves and to one another.

Creating a Ridicule-Free Zone

The project, which is the result of a collaboration among leading organizations working in the fields of character education, conflict resolution, and diversity education including Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR) and the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program, offers myriad ways to create a "ridicule-free zone" at camp — a place where children are committed to ending name-calling, teasing, put-downs, and other unkind behaviors.

The guide features five major implementation components:

  • campfire program comprised of group activity sessions
  • a cabin program linked to the week's campfire theme, such as affirmations, problem-solving or empathy-building
  • a kick-off ceremony for using "Don't Laugh at Me" as the theme of the season
  • a closing ceremony to wrap up the experience
  • a community day — July 20, National Camp Community Day — which will be synchronized with camps around the country to signal that children can change the world

The activities draw on old camp favorites, like "If I Had a Hammer" and "Blowin' in the Wind," along with new skits dealing with teasing and setting limits around other behaviors that might be hurtful. Conflict resolution skills such as using "I" messages plus fun cooperative events round out the handbook. Also included are staff training and orientation agendas, strategies and tips for coaching concepts and skills by theme, and suggestions for partnering with parents.

Putting an End to Bullying

The roots of uncaring behavior — of bullying, taunting and teasing — are complex. Laura Parker Roerden, author of the guide and an outdoor education instructor who has worked with ESR, the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program, and Project Adventure, explains that many children simply are reflecting a society where these behaviors have been modeled and even encouraged — on television, by their peers, perhaps even in their families and by other important adults in their lives.

"For these children, teaching a repertoire of alternative, more skillful behaviors is important," says Parker Roerden. "Other children are passing on the hurt they have experienced — bottled up now into unresolved feelings of grieving, fear, anger, or sadness. These children need help releasing these feelings in a caring setting. All children who bully or hurt other children, as well as their targets, can get stuck in these patterns of passing on their own hurt to others for many years. They need caring adults to help them break out of these roles."

Scapegoating, Parker Roerden continues, occurs when a group bullies an individual. "Sometimes one child initiates bullying and others join in by laughing at the target child, not letting him join the game, etc," she says. "Children may join in on bullying because it seems like fun, they want to be part of a popular group, they think the targeted child deserves to be treated poorly, or because there are no negative consequences for joining in. Any effort to alter the behaviors of a child or group of children must address the systemic nature of the problem and strive to alter the culture."

Tactics addressed in the guide include:

  • establishing a range of consequences for bullying behavior
  • sending a letter to parents about what bullying is and what your program
    is doing to prevent it
  • pairing unpopular children with friendly, helpful buddies
  • encouraging and affirming children when they demonstrate kind,
    helpful behaviors
  • playing cooperative games and doing diversity appreciation activities

Other techniques tackle intervening with targets, intervening with bullies, involving parents and guardians, and recognizing when professional intervention is necessary.

Motivating Social Change

The "Don't Laugh at Me" project puts at your fingertips important facilitation guidelines to create an anti-bias camp: ways to foster inclusion, provide appropriate materials, create diverse groups, acknowledge differences, prevent exclusion, extend thinking, empower children, meet with parents, and avoid activities that exclude. The guide also includes activities for teaching creative conflict resolution, such as "turning the problem over," giving starters, paraphrasing, validating feelings, giving time to cool off, promoting creative solutions, bringing conflict to closure, and evaluating solutions.

Drawing on his contributions as a folk singer and activist, Peter observes that "the ethic behind songs of conscience doesn't change." The same pulse that energized the civil rights movement of the 1960s fuels this grassroots crusade of 2000. "Song works as a different kind of rhetoric, one that can reach the fence-sitters," he explains.

A good friend of ACA, Peter received the Allard K. Lowenstein Award for his remarkable efforts in advancing the causes of human rights, peace and freedom. But he's not about to rest on any laurels, or rest at all, until each ACA-accredited camp creates a "ridicule-free zone" where children can become aware of their prejudices and see that stereotypical thinking is based on misinformation.

Related Topic
Don't Laugh at Me

Marla Coleman is owner/director of Coleman Country Day Camp in Merrick, New York.

Originally published in the 2000 May/June of Camping Magazine.