Farmington Hills, Mich. — The nursery-school children sat in absolute silence, wide-eyed and awestruck, watching the visiting Chamber Theater players enact the tale of ''The Tender Family.''
The children listened intently to make-believe rain on the roof, lifted their toes as make-believe water rose around them, and wondered which of their ''most precious possessions'' the Tender Family would take when they finally had to flee their flooded pretend house.
What did they take? Why, each other, of course, because their family was more precious than things.
The players arrived at this conclusion quite deliberately, through thought-provoking and often humorous discussion with each other.
There were no displays of anger or hatred. There were no explosions or shots. There were no menacing villains to give children nightmares. Still, the audience was completely enthralled, and when the play was over, they cheered. They cared.
The belief that children can be thoroughly enchanted and entertained without being frightened or overstimulated by scenes containing violence has long been cherished by Prof. Wallace Smith, who teaches drama and TV production at Oakland Community College in Farmington Hills.
He put his idea to the test eight years ago when he organized the Chamber Theater with a dozen of his students who toured the community, giving live performances of nonviolent (as well as nonsexist and nonracist) plays to children of all ages.
In the 75 to 150 appearances the company has made each year since, in schools , libraries, camps, and parks, thousands of children have been exposed to the message that ''good will prevail if you will only believe that way.''
''I call our skits 'loving experiences,' '' Professor Smith says. ''They're an expression of the reality that, when we run into what seem like problems, we can work out solutions peacefully without lashing out or resorting to harmful ideas or actions.''
He cites the following examples of the principles involved:
* Nonviolence: A bear and a mouse find a banana. The mouse thinks it's big, the bear thinks it's small. They decide the issue through reason with the help of a monkey who shows them they need not fight and there is no right or wrong because each sees the banana from the perspective of his or her own size.
* Nonsexist: In the Tender Family, the father cooks the meals and the mother brings in wood and builds the fire, a reversal of the stereotyped mother-in-the-kitchen, father-doing-the-heavy-tasks. Each enjoys the chosen task.
* Nonracist: A Giraba-Foobler, an eclectic, free-spirited animal, has skin which is sometimes light, sometimes dark, and sometimes in-between. It doesn't matter at all. ''Nobody has ever seen a purple or polka-dotted Giraba-Foobler, but who knows?'' a player asks.
The players do not use a stage but perform at ground level with the children seated close around them in a near-circle to promote a feeling of intimacy. Members of the troupe dress in T-shirts and jeans instead of costumes and use only ''a bench and a sack full of warm fuzzies'' for props, the better to appeal to the imaginations of the children.
''You don't have to wear a green costume to convince a child you're a frog,'' Mr. Smith explains. ''When children later send us drawings of our plays, they draw frogs and monkeys and elephants, not actors. They believe in us.''
Keeping their attention has never been a problem.
''Sometimes a teacher will say that children have only a short attention span , but I don't buy that,'' Mr. Smith says. ''If the material is good, you can go on indefinitely. Once, in a preschool we were told to limit ourselves to 20 minutes but we did 50 minutes and they still wanted more.''
Audiences are often invited to be involved in the dramas, skittering across the floor like mice, purring like cats, chirping like frogs, or pretending to be the sun.
Sometimes the material is presented in mime, sometimes in dance, sometimes in song. The plays are fresh, most of them written expressly for the troupes. Donations go to scholarship funds at the college. Mr. Smith says:
''We're excited because we're giving children a rich experience and presenting an alternative to the cartoons they see, where animals are always chasing and gobbling up one another and humans are blowing up one another and the world. It's not just the cop shows and the physical murders and mayhem but the emotional violence children see in these soap opera types of shows now on TV which I think are harmful.
''Our stories are warm and instructive. They are not evasive. The characters encounter some genuine crises, but it's never anything which can't be thought through and overcome.''
Teachers often like to have class discussions of the plays afterward, and Mr. Smith has received many of the children's essays and drawings which result.
''They are very perceptive,'' he says, ''and good thinkers. We don't give children enough credit for discerning the moral of the story. They love material which makes them think.''
Children have no problem with the non-sexist approach, Mr. Smith says.
''If a role calls for a parent, the player can be either a mother or a father , it doesn't matter, because both parents are equally important. The nightingale in our play isn't always a girl and the frog isn't always a boy.''
The troupe is branching out and has appeared in shopping centers, at country fairs, and at a family camp. It even went to a senior citizens party to perform. It's all in the tradition of the ''street players'' of old who only needed a small space and an audience to launch into their act.
They have also been very successful in reaching children in learning centers for the severely mentally impaired or children with emotional or learning disabilities.
What is important to Mr. Smith is the wonder in the eyes of a child watching a play unfold, the sudden joy at a happy turn of events, the spontaneous applause at the end.
And all of this evoked gently -- without violence