A loud, frantic chorus of shouted names fills the air as 20 fourth-graders pass small balls in a circle outside of an elementary school, raising them to their faces and yelling their names at them before they can pass them on and take the ones being passed to them. When someone drops the ball, the activity stops and the balls are handed back to the sole adult in the circle before they all sit down and discuss, much like at a corporate retreat, what they could improve.

The man, Etienne Rossouw, is at the Kids After Hours day camp as a facilitator from the Team Makers program, and while the activity described above may have looked and sounded just like a game, it wasn’t.

“The whole idea is that these aren’t games, these are challenges with a purpose,” he says. “Just making that small differentiation, it sounds like semantics but it’s not. This is learning through action and learning through actual play itself. So the lessons learned here are internalized and are very real, as opposed to just book learned.”

Challenges and discussions like the “Namo” activity described above make up the core of the Silver Spring-based Team Makers program, which they say is the first in the U.S. to use team-building activities to create conflict to teach kids how to react in real situations. The results they’re hoping for? Increased peer unity and a new method of bullying prevention.

“Throughout it they’re learning a lot of conflict resolution skills,” says Ali Kilpatrick, Team Makers’ marketing director. “So that way, when they go out on the playground and kids start having arguments or problems, they know how to resolve their own conflicts without fighting with each other or having to call over a recess monitor or teacher every time anybody takes the ball from somebody else.”

The Team Makers program emphasizes letting kids try to work it out on their own before stepping in and guiding them to the appropriate solution, avoiding what some see as the quintessential fault with teaching kids about conflict resolution.

“The biggest mistake we see educators and parents making is that they often jump in and save the day for their kids,” says Mitch Zeltzer, co-founder of Dynamix Adventures Inc., the Montreal-based program that Team Makers is modeled on. “I think that we’re doing them a disservice when we always step in and resolve their issues for them. It’s like riding a bike, you have to jump on and try. Nobody can tell you how to ride a bike.”

Hold the Lecture

Many find a similar flaw with the standard bullying prevention lecture or assembly.

“When teens are told what to do, that doesn’t have a lot of impact,” says Julie Hertzog, director of the Pacer Center’s National Bullying Prevention Center. “And at school assemblies, kids will say the ones who really need the message aren’t paying attention, they’re not listening. In fact, they might even be making fun of the message.”

And even if the kids are listening, Kilpatrick says she doubts hearing a lecture could translate well to actual situations.

“I’ve seen some of the lectures, and I don’t really know how much of an effect they have. You know that you shouldn’t bully, you know that you should tell teachers when you see someone bullying,” says Kilpatrick. “But when you’re a kid, and you’re on the playground and you’re involved in the situation, that doesn’t really give them the skills to diffuse the situation without having to run to the teacher every time.”

Teaching kids to handle conflict and potential bullying situations is empowering for them, Zeltzer says, a benefit that often gets lost when kids are taught solely to ask for help, however well-meaning that strategy might be.

The Bystander Effect

Knowing what to do in bullying situations could help students combat the “bystander effect” that sometimes keeps kids from intervening when they see bullying going on.

“Many efforts are focusing on doing programs and initiatives that will engage the kids who see the bullying. The rationale behind that is that it helps create a safer school climate when all students can be educated and involved and know how to address a bullying situation,” Hertzog says.

Zeltzer says that instilling a sense of peer unity in kids is the key to getting them to step in.

“Research evidence suggests that bullying can be stopped within ten seconds when peers intervene. It’s really those bystanding peers that have the true power when it comes to intervening and ending a bullying incident,” Zeltzer says. “In general, most bystanders are more likely to step in and help someone when they see themselves as friends with the victim, or if they see themselves as friends with the other bystanders.”

This could be easier said than done, as Daniel Koch, director of the Kids After Hours day camp at Oakland Terrace Elementary School in Silver Spring, says that cliques are one of the most common problems that he encounters among kids. Still, after the Team Makers lesson, he seemed optimistic about the programs’ results.

“If it was just a straight up lecture or something like that, it probably would have been in one ear and out the other,” Koch says. “But I think the interaction and the fact that [the program] incorporated fun activities and followed up with great questions and answers, I thought that really stuck well.”

A Head Start on Prevention

The fourth-graders that Rossouw worked with at Kids After Hours were at the higher end of Team Makers’ target age range, as the program is aimed at kids in grades 1-6. And while Kilpatrick says that the program is looking at adding a middle school component, their focus on a younger age range is becoming more widespread as bullying prevention initiatives look for longer-term solutions.

“There’s bullying literature about the value of addressing this very early on and teaching our kids good advocacy skills as early as when they’re just starting school,” says Hertzog. “And if we can do that at a much younger age, hopefully they’re going to carry those skills all through school.”

Zeltzer also supports getting a head start on bullying prevention to stop the problem before it starts or escalates.

“It’s great to have these intervention plans and say, ‘When bullying occurs, we’re going to do X, Y, Z,’” says Zeltzer. “But let’s start the problem-solving way sooner and let’s say, ‘What’s A, B, C,’ so that we make sure the bullying doesn’t happen in the first place.”

Rachel Nussbaum is a sophomore at Northwestern University studying journalism and English. She lives in Bethesda.

Bullying Prevention Resources

  • The National Bullying Prevention Center’s website offers resources such as bullying prevention information, facts and news, victims’ stories and educational activities. October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and the website has a list of events and outreach suggestions for how kids can get involved. pacer.org/bullying

  • The Kids Against Bullying website, sponsored by the National Bullying Prevention Center, has kid-friendly games and webisodes to catch kids’ interest. pacerkidsagainstbullying.org

  • To get a sense of the legislation behind bullying prevention, StopBullying.gov offers extensive information on how to prevent and respond to bullying and easy-to-read charts on state anti-bullying laws and who to contact for help in various situations. stopbullying.gov