Peacebuilding, in its broadest sense, is reigniting the imagination to figure out how to reconnect the things that violence has broken apart. For children, peace education then, is about fostering creativity to use new ideas to solve the old problems and conflicts their elders face.
Yet these conflicts, for both children and adults, are sometimes too close to reality, too painful to face head on in a classroom setting. For years I have used fictitious yet representative scenarios and simulations to draw students into learning in a way that gives both enough realism yet emotional distance as they invent solutions to these sticky problems.
Children can learn peacebuilding skills at any age
A few years ago, I sat with a group of Lao youth, many still in high school, who were thinking about ways to build peace in their schools and community life. As they used the simple analysis and communication tools we developed in the peace curriculum, their enthusiasm for the activities was infectious. For situations of bullying in schools for example, the curriculum introduced the development of empathy, practicing dialogue skills, and examining their misunderstandings that lead to hurtful discrimination and exclusion.
Simulations and scenario-based learning is applicable for all grade levels, from preschool to adult education. For learning primary math skills, for example, scenarios that promote peace could be as simple as reframing the problem statements. Shifting language from aggressive and domineering to harmonizing and peaceful promotes empathy early on.
“Jose has six apples. Kim takes 3 apples from Jose. How many apples does Jose have?”
Emphasizing sharing and generosity, the statement could be changed to say:
“Jose has six apples. Jose gives Kim three apples. How many apples does Jose have?”
Simulation training allows participants to understand the various sides of conflicts
More complex simulations using roleplay also promote peace on several different levels of our being. First, at a personal level, acting a role in a simulation allows one to fully explore what it feels like to be one of the stakeholders in a conflict. This can spur tremendous reflection about a person’s inner strengths and weakness. Ultimately, confidence and resolve to become a peaceful person are the outcomes.
I remember one participant who was tasked with being a ‘spoiler’ in a simulation exercise in the Philippines. She was plunged into deep introspection by her dastardly actions when playing the role. Through processing what she did in the simulation, which was out of her real-life character, she resolved to become a champion for peace in her town.
Second, simulations can emulate the gaps and fractures to relationships in everyday life allowing students to practice strategies that repair these relational rifts. Participants in another scenario in the Philippines were able to persevere in holding a mediation session between conflicting parties even though numerous obstacles were thrown in by other participants playing the role of spoilers. For the students in Lao PDR, practicing scenarios allowed them to explore harmonious responses to fellow students that were empathetic and inclusive.
Conflicts are often born from gaps in communication
The third benefit of using simulation and scenario-based training reveals the structural problems that exacerbate conflict. In the human security trainings I have conducted in many countries in Africa and Asia, I note that simulations reveal the often siloed nature of governance and societal structure.
Assigning participants to cross-sectoral discussion groups reveals the communications gaps and challenges faced by those wishing to overcome them. Structural realities might be more within the grasp of adults but children recognize and name these obvious gaps in communication when they see them. John Hunter and his development of the World Peace Game for 4th graders demonstrates this.
At a cultural level, peace education, using roleplay, allows participants to tap into nearly forgotten traditional wisdom and dispute resolution mechanisms. By including multiple generations in one scenario, traditional wisdom is harnessed, passing down peacebuilding capacities across generations.
The curriculum that was developed in the Lao PDR was used with secondary school students and with the local administrators. While the simulation scenarios might have been different in the trainings between children and adults, the lessons, nevertheless, had a common thematic core. These included: empathy, trust, communication skills, dialogue skills, identity, and how misunderstanding leads to discrimination.
The problems facing our world demand a wholistic education that has peace as a core value. Developing a pedagogy that includes scenario-based simulation is one that engages the mind, the hands, and the heart. When these parts of ourselves are part of the education process, then the full attention of the learner are engaged.