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Nurturing nonviolence at camp.

Today, young people are all too frequently taught through television, MTV, music, movies, and life that violence is an understandable reality" in life. Violence is all around us, in life and in art, and it's as American as Dairy Queen.

This casual acceptance of violence cannot be accepted. Children must be taught to value nonviolence. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "The choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence."

Consider just a few pieces of evidence: * A handgun control advocacy group

estimated that 200 million guns are

in the possession of private citizens

and 60-70 million of them are hand-guns. * A study in the Seattle area found

that during a six year period, 398

shooting deaths occurred in homes

where guns were kept (Guilliatt,

1992). In only two cases were the

intruders strangers; suicide accounted

for 333 of the deaths. * The National School Safety Center

in Westlake Village, California, reported

that 80 to 90 percent of the

guns seized by school officials come

from home (Guilliatt). * The Federal Government computed

shooting deaths among 15- to 19-year-olds

increased 30 percent from

1987-1989; an estimated 4,500

teens were killed by guns in 1991,

(Guilliatt). Handgun Control, Inc.,

has reported 34,000 deaths by all

types of guns in 1992.

Media violence intensifies the problem. Newsweek reported that by the age of 18, the average American child will have seen 200,000 violent acts on television, including 40,000 murders (1991). According to a report on video violence by the National Council of the Churches of Christ, "Constant exposure to violence can desensitize or harden and make people callous to violence," (Pomeroy, 1990).

Violence is evident in many other forms. Racism is violence. As the Rev. Yvonne E. Delk wrote: "Racism is an issue of power, domination, and control." Furthermore, militarism, yet another form violence takes, remains alive and well in our society. Our national defense budget still remains close to $300 billion, and war remains a popular extension of national policy. St. Cypian once said: "If murder is committed privately it is considered a crime. But if it happens with the authority of the state, they call it courage."

The camp community is in a prime position to teach nonviolence. I believe camps comprise the finest youth program in the United States. We touch the lives of millions of children and youth each year. We employ some of the finest leaders and role models. We can and must inspire and empower our campers to reject violence in all forms, and create kinder and gentler homes, schools, and world.


Campers and staff need time in small and large groups to express feelings, share ideas and attitudes about real-life issues. As camp professionals we must be honest about where kids are coming from. It is real that kids coming to camp are exposed to violence in almost every form through the television, videos, movies, music, newspapers, magazines, and conversation. We must help campers understand why this is so and then help them form life-giving, peace-filled values that can be realized in their homes, with their friends, and in the world. We must help kids make their enemies their friends.

We could have "teach-ins" to help kids ask questions and form values about various issues: the arms race, homosexuality, capital punishment, the environment, dating and sexuality, satanism and cults, and children's issues. Quality videos are available that deal with youth issues which can be used for discussion times and evening cabin closure times. Qualified staff members can visit cabin groups and lead discussions on topics of interest. In camps with a religious focus, bible study times could include major sections on nonviolence and environmental lifestyle choices.


Campers love games. Since children learn best through experience, especially when they're having fun, games can be used as a teaching tool. The tried and true "Capture the Flag" is marvelous for a post-game processing about greed. The game teaches "I want what I want when I want it. " Of course, we have to work for it. We can have conversations about the values reflected in actions such as taking something that is not ours while stifling the freedom of others in the process.

Another game, "Romans and Christians," is great for teaching about oppression. While the game has a Christian focus, we sometimes change it to "South Africa," to teach about apartheid. In the original game, we pretend we are in ancient Rome, and campers, who play the Christians, are "persecuted" for their faith by the staff, who play the Romans. The campers' goal is to find, hidden somewhere in the camp, the secret place of worship. While searching, the campers can be caught by staff and questioned about their faith. If they don't produce adequate answers, they are thrown in "jail" and questioned further, until they have sufficiently explained the story of their faith. The game, which can last an hour or two, ends when all campers have found the secret place of worship.

Discussions about this game enable kids to talk about how they are oppressed at home, in school, in their congregations, or in the community. We can also talk about where else oppression is happening in the world and in our nation. Who is being oppressed and who is the oppressor? The game can generate additional discussions by adding the use of squirt guns to teach about gun reality and control in schools and society.

Wonderful multicultural games exist from the Inuit Eskimos, Chinook Indians, New Zealand and New Guinea tribes, Norway, America, and throughout the world. Through these games we can teach that we are part of a global family, brothers and sisters. We can also celebrate this oneness with multicultural dancing.

What is crucial in all these games is two factors: 1) letting the campers play the game in all its excitement; 2) taking the time to process the game following the action, and asking deep and wide-ranging questions relating to home, family, community, and the world. Kids want and need to think deeply about life. Frankly, I believe kids have a better opportunity for deep reflection about life at camp than in school.

Challenge Courses

Many camps have low and high ropes challenge courses which teach problem solving, cooperation, trust, and risk taking. What an awesome way to learn values!

Story Telling

People love stories. Stories connect us with different cultures and situations. We need to collect real and fictional stories which focus on nonviolence so campers can understand that nonviolence can work in life.


Kids do not appreciate lectures! But they do value and remember near-life recreation experiences. For instance, campers can learn about world hunger through meal simulations. A camp can be divided into five economic groups with typical foods served to each group. The meal can be served in silence with readings and music throughout the silent experience. Drama and dance can be included to affect the deeper learning senses. Following the event we can allow time for processing about why people are hungry and what we can do.

Many camps have old buses which can be stripped and covered with graffiti to become a place to experience homelessness. Campers can sleep in the bus, sing songs about the homeless, hear stories, stand around an oil drum for a campfire and heat. They can begin to form a sensitivity and empathy toward the homeless.

At our camp, we developed a nuclear blast experience, which simulated the effects of a 20-megaton blast over a city. Part of the experience included listening to Bruce Springsteen sing "War," hearing Mark Twain's "The War Prayer," and listening to graphic accounts of the human impact of the Hiroshima blast. Campers lay on the ground in concentric circles recreating distances from the epicenter of the blast. Appropriate Scripture was read. Finally, the experience was discussed and processed.

Our camp is fortunate to have received a recreation of the scene at Wounded Knee after the massacre, complete with descriptive boards about the need for Remembering-Repenting-Renewing. We will use this village for teaching about our American history, and also for teaching about times within our families, schools, and the world where there is still a need for the "three R's." Experience and processing are again keys to value development.


We all need rituals. Rituals give us the opportunities to express our values and beliefs. Times for worship and moments for symbolic expression are highlights at camps. Rituals are community times when our common unities and values are affirmed. We take strength in realizing we are not alone. Our identities are celebrated when we yield to a common ideal or God. Selfishness is lessened as we contemplate a God or value beyond our individual narrowness.

As we worship or celebrate this separate yet near value, we take on the values inherent in the symbol we adore. We realize it is not us, our own wits of ability to comprehend, but someone, something bigger and more awesome than ourselves that gives value. The more rituals we experience in camp, the more values we learn. Rituals can take many forms, and can reflect many religions or sources of spirituality.

Music and Dance

People love to sing! Music helps us share common feelings and values and molds our differences into an orchestra of one. Music helps us express feelings and values that we may be hesitant to express. It provides a rhythm for all our scattered minds.

Every song has an inherent value. Every political movement and religious event utilizes music for emphasis and celebration. When we sing we do not maim each other. When we dance we touch each other in celebration.

In all the years I have been in camping, the most effective song for teaching nonviolence has been "One Tin Soldier." The song expresses thoughts about hypocrisy, violence, peacemaking, pacifism, and the cost of peacemaking. "Manavu" is an Israeli dance-song about the beauty and peace of God on the mountain. A wonderful song called "Garbage" by Bill Steele is great for teaching about care of the earth.

Some camps may find it beneficial to go to the expense of designing their own songbook, which means they must secure permission from the publisher of each song to be included. While expensive, it is a strong way to emphasize the values camps recognize as important to their mission. For our camp's songbook, we selected songs that teach nonviolence, justice, and peace. Its title is "Songs of the Mountain People," which comes from the song "One Tin Soldier."


Campers have a need and ability to care. Camps have a wonderful opportunity to challenge campers to express their concerns and convictions by writing letters to their president, congressional representatives, parents, friends and enemies. Focus should be placed on working towards reconciliation. To encourage the effort, these letters could be mailed at camp expense.

High school-aged campers can be encouraged to join peace organizations. Programs can be established to provide opportunities to practice nonviolent compassion. For those campers who really want to get involved, trips to Washington, D.C. can be arranged to learn advocacy skills from the Children's Defense Fund, Bread for the World, Sojourner's Fellowship, or the Lutheran Office of Public Policy, to name a few.

At camp, campfire times can be given over in part to a cabin group that wants to lead a vigil about an issue of concern for them. Maybe campers would like an opportunity to fast for part of a day. Some camps might want to collect contributions for organizations like Heifer Project International, UNICEF, or a religiouis group's hunger relief programs. Kids want to care! Kids need to care! Camps need to emphasize the need to walk the talk and talk the walk.


High school youth could be given opportunities to learn and serve outside of camp. They could work in partnership with Habitat for Humanity to build and repair homes. They could experience urban issues in inner cities. They could travel to Indian reservations to learn and serve. The environment could be studied by visiting sites throughout their states. Militarism could be studied by visits to nuclear weapons research plants and other military facilities near camps. Camps could sponsor international trips for the purpose of building a peaceful world.

Wearable Statements

Commercialization does not need to have the last word with kids. There are several wonderful t-shirt companies throughout the United States that offer shirts with value-loaded messages. The artwork is creative. The most popular t-shirt over the past years at our camp has PEACE in large letters across the front, and a quote from Jonathan Schell on the back which reads: "EXTINCTION is not something to contemplate, but something to rebel against!" The manufacturers will even allow camps to put their names on the backs of the shirts. Kids want to stand up for something significant, and this is one more fun way to help them do just that.

I am convinced that campers want to know how to live in a peaceful, nonviolent relationship with each other, their families, and the world. I am also convinced that national interest, gangs, portions of the media, family and peer pressures tempt kids to embrace destructive values. The camp community is in a wonderful position to significantly shape a better world by teaching the value of nonviolence. Indeed, it is our responsibility.

An old Rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell the night had ended and the day had begun. "Could it be" asked one of his students, "when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or dog? " "No," answered the Rabbi. Another asked, "Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig tree or a peace tree? " "No, " answered the Rabbi. "When is it then?" the pupils demanded. "It is when you can look at the face of any man or woman and see that it is your brother or sister. Because, if you cannot see this, it is still night."


Barndt, J. (1991). Dismantling racism. Minneapolis: Augsburg. Death by gun. (July 17, 1989). Time, pp. 29-61. Division for Church in Society, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Children at risk (2). Guilliatt, R. (November, 1992). Under the gun. Seventeen, pp. 134-135. Kids Who Kill. (April 8, 1991). U.S. News and World Report. Peacemaking: day by day. (1985). Pax Christi. Pomeroy, D. (1990). Video violence and values. New York Friendship Press. Violence in Our Culture. (April 1, 1991). Newsweek pp. 48-51.
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Letnes, Ron
Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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