Why Color War?

The following was written for one of the directors at a meditation camp here in VA. He was looking for some advice on Color War and incorporating it into his camp. There was the idea that the competition will be unhealthy or exclusionary, and after a long phone conversation I decided to record these ideas and histories for posterity.

I grew up on the Red Team. No matter what we called ourselves from summer to summer – the Red Hots, Red Rulers, just Red – we were the best team in the Color War. I have no shame in stating that fact.

What is Color War? It’s a camp-wide competition made up of challenges that are worth points. At the end of a certain period of time (sometimes the entire summer, sometimes just a one-week session) the scores are tallied and the winning team gets a prize as well as the knowledge that they are, in fact, the winner. Color War is so much more than a game, though. It’s a healthy competition that grows our children into engaged, caring citizens.

Healthy Competition

Interestingly enough, the Red Team of my childhood never actually won the Color War. We consistently had the lowest scores; our team captains were always calling emergency strategy meetings. We would bumble through relay races and fall down in the talent show.  Looking back, in any other circumstance we would have made any coach or leader ashamed of our happy-go-lucky, come-what-may take on the competition.

But not at camp! At camp, we were commended for this approach to the Color War. Our unity as a team was constantly rewarded with praise from the Camp Director and we would always see a few points go up on the board.

In spite of the idea that competition and the subsequent loss can be crushing for the children, I have found that Color War, when done right, does just the opposite. My job as the Color War Master and Camp Director is to ensure that the natural competitive side of children is funneled into something productive. When I give them Color War as the means to this end, my staff and I are able to control the intensity of the competition and ensure that every child is treated fairly. By being an example to the campers, we are showing them how to be successful at more than just Color War games.

My honest opinion, and the reason why I continue to offer Color War, children are competitive by nature. Without going too far into it, bullying is often a result of that competitive nature. By offering my staff and campers something competitive to buy into, I am relieving them of finding that outlet.

If a child isn’t very competitive, they still learn how to healthily participate in team and individual competitions. Color War teaches these campers that their small actions affect more than just themselves.

What Color War Teaches

Aside from good sportsmanship, it could be hard for an outsider to see what benefits children draw from Color War. We base this on Michael Josephson’s six Pillars of Character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. Below are listed the attributes of each pillar.


  • Be honest
  • Don’t deceive, cheat, or steal
  • Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do
  • Have the courage to do the right thing
  • Build a good reputation
  • Be loyal — stand by your family, friends, and country


  • Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule
  • Be tolerant and accepting of differences
  • Use good manners, not bad language
  • Be considerate of the feelings of others
  • Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone
  • Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements


  • Do what you are supposed to do
  • Plan ahead
  • Persevere: keep on trying!
  • Always do your best
  • Use self-control
  • Be self-disciplined
  • Think before you act — consider the consequences
  • Be accountable for your words, actions, and attitudes
  • Set a good example for others


  • Play by the rules
  • Take turns and share
  • Be open-minded; listen to others
  • Don’t take advantage of others
  • Don’t blame others carelessly
  • Treat all people fairly


  • Be kind
  • Be compassionate and show you care
  • Express gratitude
  • Forgive others
  • Help people in need


  • Do your share to make your school and community better
  • Cooperate
  • Get involved in community affairs
  • Stay informed; vote
  • Be a good neighbor
  • Obey laws and rules
  • Respect authority
  • Protect the environment
  • Volunteer

By rewarding these behaviors publicly, we are encouraging more than just scoring points. Each team has the potential to win despite their ability to score in the events we present them.

A Well-formed Color War Tradition

So, if I’ve won you over, you could be wondering how to incorporate these ideas into your Color War program or how to start one of your own. I cannot tell you what will work at your camp, but I can show you the way we run our program.


*Make sure teams are even and counselors are well-distributed! I like to assign the team captains as well.

**Character Points are awarded at the discretion of administrative staff only. Staff can recommend opposing team players for these points, but not award them.

Other Ideas

  • Have a Spirit Stick (a branch that gets passed around and painted to the current top team at each meal).
  • Name your teams! Getting the kids involved helps.
  • Have fun! Not every competition needs to be organized sport. Dutch Auctions, silly races, crab soccer, and counselor vs. counselor events can be just as fun.
  • Don’t forget to reward for team cheers!
  • Have a back story. One camp I worked at had a great back story about local Native American tribes and how the Color War honored their traditions.
  • Start small. If this is your first summer, maybe a game a week will work. Or maybe it’s just a cheer-off at every dinner and a final game at the end of the week.
  • Get the community involved in a tie breaker. We once had a roller derby team out to break a tie between green and blue. The kids were the coaches and the players really listened to them. After about 30 minutes of game play, a truck arrived with skates and protective gear that was then used by all the kids to just skate around. The tie was broken, and the kids got to go a few laps around a “real” roller derby track with actual roller girls. How cool was that?
  • Be transparent. Make any score reports during announcements or at meals. Keeping the score posted also helps with this transparency.
  • Have games worth a specific number of points instead of the points they earn. If someone wins a basketball game by 50 points, that kind of spread would be hard to make up. But if the win itself is worth 10 points, the competition stays neck and neck!

Good Luck!