Nurturing peacemakers in preschool classrooms

YOUNG children can be taught the basics of peacemaking: A group of preschool children holds hands in a ``friendship circle,'' and then they each tell what they like about the person to their right.

A nursery-school teacher, weary of the G.I. Joe/He-Man/Star Wars play her children imitate, decides to read them the ``Wizard of Oz.'' She stocks the dress-up corner with Oz-type clothes, puts Oz characters in the puppet theater, and the play flows in a more imaginative direction for the rest of the year.

An elementary schoolteacher in a culturally diverse school gets the students in her class to chart the color differences among them, turning it into a math exercise in seriation.

These examples and more, mentioned at the recent national conference of the 60-year-old National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington, show some of the ways teachers demonstrate the value and skill of peacemaking.

Sparked by research in the early 1980s on youth's reaction to nuclear issues, the idea of teaching peacemaking has now filtered down to the youngest levels. But where older grades tend to focus their peace curriculum on the nuclear issues, the younger children are taught peacemaking on a more immediate level.

For one thing, ``there aren't a lot of little kids who are afraid of a nuclear threat,'' says Nancy Carlson-Paige, an early-childhood specialist at Lesley College, Cambridge, Mass. With partner Diane Levin at Wheelock College, Boston, she researched and developed a peace curriculum for preschoolers. ``A three-year-old may use the words `nuclear radiation' in his play, but [the child] doesn't mean the same thing than an adult would mean by the term,'' she said in a telephone interview.

Still, preschoolers occasionally confront the idea of nuclear annihilation from sources ``parents can't control,'' she says - ``older kids, TV, a picture on the cover of a news magazine. We try to assure them of their safety in the immediate moment,'' she says, ``because that's where little kids live.''

Peacemaking curricula have grown popular in states along both coasts and in occasional spots in between, according to a spokesman from Educators for Social Responsibility in Cambridge, Mass.

For young children, the curriculum tends to revolve around three issues: conflict resolution; sensitivity to the differences among people; and techniques to cope with the vast array of war and violent toys, as well as TV shows and the aggressive play they may spawn.

Conflict resolution - a concept that's been around as long as teachers have been breaking up fights - teaches that ``negotiation is not a wimpy, but a valuable thing to do,'' says Barbara Oehlberg, family life education specialist for the Cleveland Public Schools.

Teaching children to work through their problems with others in nonviolent ways starts with teaching them to listen to each other, she thinks. She advises setting up a ``peace table,'' where you can take the two (or more) squabblers. Whoever is touching the table gets to speak, and the others must listen, knowing ``they'll get their turn,'' she says.

Mary Ann Pullman of Troy State University, Troy, Ala., emphasizes the need to ``empower the weak one'' in a fight with a bully, giving the child the right to state a position (``I got the ball first, so it's mine''). But you also need to ``show the bullies alternative ways to meet their needs besides pushing and grabbing,'' she says.

This should be done in a loving atmosphere, showing respect for each child's ability to solve the problem, Mrs. Oehlberg thinks. ``Love builds trust,'' she says, ``and trust always leads to more cooperative, democratic behavior. Fear,'' she says, ``leans toward security because it feels insecure, but love leads toward truth. Fear and love cannot be together,'' she concludes.

Another aspect of the love that builds toward peacemaking is an appreciation of the differences among people, peace educators say. The increasing numbers of people from vastly different cultures who are populating the United States are bringing this issue to the forefront, says Ms. Carlson-Paige.

It's not the differences but the sameness that bothers a lot of parents and teachers about the imitative play children do with toy weapons, toy war equipment, and ``action figures.'' Yet forbidding these plastic weapons doesn't seem to work as a technique, Carlson-Paige says.

She speaks of the importance of ``dialogue'' with the child. Try to ``humanize the enemy,'' she suggests. ``Ask him what happens when Cobra [an evil action figure] goes home at night. Do his kids like him? What will he have for dinner?''

Another good idea is to show the children how much more powerful they are than these violence-prone figures. ``Ask, `What does Rambo do when he gets angry?' Then point out that all his reactions are violent; he never discusses the problem or talks it through to a resolution. Show them that they know how to solve their problems in lots of different ways; not just hitting,'' she says.

``What we need,'' Oehlberg says, is not just a peace curriculum or a few techniques to counteract the worst effects of war toys, but ``a wholesale resocialization process to lead children toward peace.''

``Peace is not something you get, and then it takes care of itself,'' she points out. ``Peace is a process that needs to be continually nurtured.''

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