Bullying: A Serious Constraint to Children’s Play

I picked up my local newspaper yesterday morning and was shocked to see a headline, “Bullied boy fears going outside”. Just two days ago, I’d written a post about how engaging children in physical activity isn’t always “easy” and cited bullying as one of the issues children face that can interfere with their participation in physical activity. And here we have just one example. There is a child in my community who may be getting the message to “get outside” and “play outside” and “be active,” and it is clear he’s interested in being outside and playing, but he’s being verbally bullied by other kids in his neighbourhood.


I have a particular interest in this issue because some of my recent research has focused on bullying in recreation and sport settings (Shannon, 2013). Bullying has been studied most within the context of schools, but occurs in out-of-school programs and in various recreation facilities as well (Deakin, 2006; Endresen & Olweus, 2005; Nansel, Overpeck, Haynie, Ruan, & Scheidt, 2003). In fact, almost one third of bullying experiences take place beyond the school setting (Fekkes, Pijpers, & Verloove-Vanhorick, 2005). Unfortunately, very little is known about bullying in these settings and there are no established “best practices” for preventing it from happening or managing it when it does occur. In this particular case, the police have told the mother that there is nothing she can do and “basically told me if I didn’t like it to relocate”. I have to question whether this is either an effective or compassionate way to deal with any issue in a community. Perhaps the police do not clearly understand the negative impact that this form of bullying could have on this child.

Consequences of Bullying

Youth who are victimized frequently report high levels of depression, social anxiety, and loneliness (Juvonen, Graham, & Schuster, 2003); thoughts of suicide (Rigby, 1996); lower self-esteem (Craig, 1998); and feelings of unhappiness (Fekkes et al., 2004). More bullied youth than non-bullied youth report having headaches, sleep problems, and abdominal pain (Fekkes et al., 2004).

Beyond these physical and emotional effects, bullying can be a barrier to participation in recreation and sport programs. In addition to affecting the child’s physical health, avoiding participation in recreational activities may further isolate and stigmatize children. And, if bullying is experienced in recreation settings or is perceived to exist (e.g., the child perceives a threat), the youth who could benefit most from the various outcomes associated with recreation participation (e.g., skill development, enhanced self-esteem, and friendship development) might not be reached. This consequence is of great concern as leisure interests and skills developed during childhood significantly influence leisure interests and participation throughout adulthood (Shannon & Shaw, 2008). Avoiding participation in recreation and sport activities during childhood (including simple activities like riding a bike in one’s neighbourhood) could drastically influence an individual’s leisure interests and skills in adulthood an, in turn, their health.

Tips for Locating Safe Places for Children to Engage in Recreation and Sport

Most parents want to be confident that their children’s physical and mental health will not be compromised while they are participating in recreation and sport activities. While it is more difficult to deal with bullying in one’s neighbourhood (especially if police or the bullies’ parents are not willing to intervene), my research (Shannon, 2013) found that there were some common characteristics of recreation and sport environments that were committed to creating safe environments for youth to engage in recreation. The culture of the organization and the attention they gave to particular program elements seemed to be key. Here are four questions you can ask to gain a better sense of whether an organization is committed to creating and maintaining a safe or “bully-free” environment.

  1. Ask administrators bout the values/attitudes of their organization related to bullying. If they say, “It doesn’t happen here,” be concerned. In my research, some administrators said bullying wasn’t an issue in their programs or facility, but their front line staff – the ones working directly with the youth day-in-day-out – said bullying happened and sometimes often. Those organizations who fail to acknowledge bullying and to develop clear values around creating a safe environment for children are likely not prepared to prevent or manage bullying incidents.
  2. Ask about staff training. Are staff trained to create a climate where youth respect each other? Are they trained in how to prevent bullying, recognize it, and manage it when it happens? Training doesn’t mean that bullying won’t occur, but there is a much better chance that staff will be able to avoid creating situations where bullying might occur
  3. Ask about policies and procedures for addressing bullying when it occurs. If an organization has codes of conduct or specific policies (e.g., call to parents if a child reports bullying), you can feel much more comfortable that they are committed to creating and maintaining a safe environment for your child.
  4. Ask about supervision. Most organizations I conducted research with discussed times when the supervisor to participation ratio was small as a time when a lot more bullying took place. If there are only 2 adults supervising 40 kids at lunch time at camp, it will be more difficult for them to monitor interactions and notice more subtle forms of bullying behaviours. Organizations who were really concerned about creating safe environments, worked to ensure that during unstructured play times or “down times,” there was sufficient supervision and that this time wasn’t simply viewed as a “break” for the youth leaders.

Supporting Youth During their Free-Time

I am distressed by the lack of support this mother and child are receiving locally related to this issue. We argue the importance of children “getting outside” and we talk about “bringing back play”. We have a child who wants to get outside and play and a mother who values this form of activity for her child, but neither appear to have the support to do ensure the child feels safe. It is also bothersome to think that for the kids who are tormenting this child, this is what they are choosing to do with their free-time in the summer. Rather than inviting the child to join in; rather than finding other ways to amuse themselves, they are choosing to harass another child. Perhaps these bullies need some support. Perhaps they are working to feel powerful in their neighbourhood because they are powerless elsewhere. Perhaps they are trying to meet particular needs (e.g., relieve boredom) that they don’t know how to satisfy in a more socially acceptable way.

My hope is that a youth-serving recreation or sport organization has seen the story and offers the child who has been victimized a safe place to play this summer – invites him to the local Zig Zag Playground Program, for example. No child should be stuck inside for the summer afraid to go outside to enjoy the summer weather. But we should not ignore the bullies either. I don’t know their story, but do wonder what is going on with them and how could they be supported in using their leisure time in a way that doesn’t involve harming others? Surely there are other ways to enjoy summer vacation than tormenting others.

When I think about the bullies, I think about the role of leisure education for youth and the importance of helping youth develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that contribute to positive leisure functioning. This can involve helping youth develop skills (including relationship, problem-solving, and communication skills), identify interests and opportunities to participate in activities that are of interest, identify the various needs youth have and how leisure activities and experiences (socially acceptable ones) can meet those needs. Unfortunately, too few youth are encouraged or given the chance to think about their leisure or the relationship between leisure and other aspects of their lives (or the lives of others in this case).


Craig, W. M. (1998). The relationship among bullying, victimization, depression, anxiety, and aggression in elementary school children. Personality & Individual Differences, 24, 123-130.

Deakin, J. (2006). Dangerous people, dangerous places: The nature and location of young people’s victimisation and fear. Children & Society, 20, 376-390.

Endresen, I. M., & Olweus, D. (2005). Participation in power sports and antisocial involvement in preadolescent and adolescent boys. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 46(5), 468–478.

Fekkes, M., Pijpers, F. I. M., & Verloove-VanHorick, S. P. (2004). Bullying behavior and associations with psychosomatic complaints and depression in victims. Journal of Pediatrics, 144, 17-22.

Juvonen, J., Graham, S., & Schuster, M. A. (2003). Bullying among young adolescents: The strong, the weak, and the troubled. Pediatrics, 112, 1231–1237.

Nansel, T.R., Overpeck, M.D., Haynie, D.L., Ruan W.J., & Scheidt, P.C. (2003). Relationships between bullying and violence among US youth. Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine, 157, 348-353.

Rigby, K. (1996). Bullying in schools and what to do about it. Melbourne, Australia: Council for Educational Research.

Shannon, C.S. (2013). Bullying in recreation and sport settings: Exploring risk factors, prevention efforts, and intervention strategies. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, 31(1), 15-33.

Shannon, C.S., & Shaw, S.M. (2008). Mothers and daughters: Teaching and learning about leisure. Leisure Sciences, 30(1), 1-16.


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