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Children Playing War

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If you are planning a peace event in the coming weeks, you may want to consider using this book as part of a children's activity.

While on a peace delegation in Afghanistan, we heard the stories of many children, whose lives had been shattered by war.

One boy had nearly lost both arms and legs to a cluster bomb. A young girl had lost her mother, her sisters, her brothers, her cousins, her aunt and uncle, all to one bunker buster that went astray. We've told their stories dozens of times now in the hopes of helping people to understand the true consequences of war.

A few weeks after returning to the United States from that trip, I had an appointment in downtown Palo Alto. I took the free shuttle which also carried middle-school children from their homes to school.

One pair of boys was talking about war, making exploding noises and whooshing sounds like airplanes. To them, the idea of war was really cool, like the video games kids play. I could only think of those two little kids in Afghanistan, and the reality of war.

One of my prayers was to find a way to teach children about war, in a gentle but compelling way. Today, we have a book which helps do just that. It is called Playing War and it is available in our web store.

We recently used that book during an interfaith worship service, remembering the start of the Iraq war. Three Stanford students read the book to the children (and adults) attending the service. Each of the young women played roles from within the story. It was an incredibly moving time.

The rest of this story is written by the wonderful teaching team at Tilbury House (the publisher of Playing War) and provides suggested activities and additional resources to use along with the book, Playing War.

About Playing War

One hot summer day Luke and his friends decide to play their favorite game of war, using sticks for guns and pine cones for bombs and grenades. When a new child in the neighborhood hesitates to join in and then tells them he has been in a real war in the country where he used to live, the other children start to see their game in a new light.

Lea Lyon's fluid, expressive watercolors capture the action and the emotion of this story, where friendship and kindness prevail.

Kathy Beckwith trains student mediators, volunteers as a mediation coach at schools, and works as a mediator in her community. She lives with her family on a country road in western Oregon.

Lea Lyon juggles her work in the business world with her love of painting. She illustrated Say Something for Tilbury House and enjoys involving local school children in her illustration projects. She lives in Richmond, California.

Teachers and Parents Please Take Note

Children today are besieged by violent images, whether it's from coverage of the Iraq war on the evening news, hunting and shooting the enemy on a video game, or on cartoons and programs available on television. Many children see so much violence—presented as entertainment—that they become desensitized to it and never see the game or the cartoon in human terms. When someone gets shot on a video game, it's "Pow!"—they're gone. They don't see an actual human, whose death will leave a family devastated.

The children in Playing War step into someone else's shoes when Sameer, a new neighbor, tells them of his experience with war. Luke, the initial war-game-promoter, then sees war in a different light and realizes that war is not a game.

Playing War is a timely tool for educating children in building empathy for others and promoting respectful and peaceful environments. Educating children is an important step in changing our world. As author Harold Kushner said: "The small choices and decisions we make a hundred times a day add up to determining the kind of world we live in." Young readers of Playing War will discover the power each of us has to make a difference through acts of understanding and friendship.

Heads Up! Playing War is a picture book that is read in a few quick minutes, yet has the power to draw children into reflection and thought and promote many important classroom discussions. One of the strengths of this story is the author Kathy Beckwith's, choice to depict the children as thoughtful decision-makers. While some educators may choose to stick closely to the themes of alternatives to violence in children's games, others may embark on discussions in which children explore their potential roles as bridge-builders of understanding and as mediators in conflicts. Still others will plunge in and discuss what Wheelock college Professor Diane Levin refers to as "the real human impact of war."

Playing War will help inspire classroom conversations about:

  • Games and entertainment that include violence
  • Friendship and the importance of respect and empathy
  • Conflict resolution skills
  • The effects of "real" war on children and families at home and abroad
  • Ways in which kids can learn to promote non-violence and peace
  • Refugees and immigrants
Resources The following resources are offered to help teachers and their students explore that variety of issues so that Playing War can be fully appreciated as a teaching tool.

Adult resources for talking to children about toys and games involving war play:

Diane Levin, professor of education at Wheelock College, and Nancy Carlson-Paige, professor of education at Lesley College, are the co-authors of two thought-provoking books about how the marketing of violence to children through the popular culture affects children's play and the development of social values and behavior.

  • When Push Comes to Shove: Building Conflict Resolution Skills with Young Children, by Nancy Carlson-Paige and Diane Levin, Redleaf Press, 1998.
  • Who's Calling the Shots? How to Respond Effectively to Children's Fascination with War Play, War Toys and Violent TV, by Nancy Carlson-Paige and Diane Levin, New Society Publishers, 1990
    Two other good resources are:
  • The Lion and Lamb Project: This is an initiative by parents for parents, providing information about the effects of violent entertainment, toys, and games on children's behavior.
  • Media Awareness Network: This website focuses on the increase of violence in the media from 1999 to 2001.

Adult resources for talking to children about real war:

Although we all might wish otherwise, most American children today are learning about war and terrorism on an unprecedented scale. In response to this situation and in particular in the wake of 9/11, concerned psychologists and educators have developed guidelines to help adult caregivers as they discuss the issue of war.

  • National Association of School Psychologists (NASP):
    Tips for parents and teachers to help talk to children about their fears of war and terrorism.
  • Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR) offers a comprhensive14-point guide for adults who are talking with children about war and violence.
  • Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR) is a national leader in educational reform. Their mission is to make teaching social responsibility a core practice in education so that young people develop the convictions and skills to shape a safe, sustainable, democratic, and just world.1-800-370-2515

Children's picture books that explore aspects of war, violence, and making the world more peaceful:

These are some of the many books available for kids on these topics.

  • If You Choose Not to Hit by Kathy Beckwith
  • The Wall by Eve Bunting
  • Smoky Night by Eve Bunting
  • The Cello of Mr O by Jane Cutler
  • Gandhi by Demi
  • The Color of Home by Mary Hoffman
  • Sami and the Time of the Troubles by Florence Parry Heide
  • The Cats in Krasinski Square by Karen Hesse
  • There Once Was a Puffin by Florence Page Jaques
  • Swimmy by Leo Lioni
  • Selavi by Youme
  • Enemy Pie by Derek Munson
  • Pastel Para Enemigos by Derek Munson
  • The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss
  • Luba the Angel of Bergen Belson by Michell McCann
  • Maggie and the Goodbye Gift by Sue and Jerry Milord
  • Patrol by Walter Dean Myers
  • Peace Begins with You by Katherine Scholes
  • September Roses by Jeanette Winter

Kids Activities and Issues: The activities selected here are intended to help kids build empathy and awareness as they examine complex issues that are raised in Playing War. We hope adults will be able to help place this particular story in a larger cultural and historical context.

Activity #1: Playing War—The Book Club Discussion

Kathy Beckwith

A note from Kathy: Three years ago our family started our own little "Book Club." We take turns choosing a book that everyone reads. Then we talk about it. The person who chooses the book also plans an activity that somehow relates to the story. I hope we keep doing it even when we all live in different houses and I'm a super old lady. I wish we had started earlier. If this sounds like fun to you, I'd be honored to have your family choose Playing War. Teachers might also have Book Club groups in their classrooms. Here are some ideas you can use when you meet:

Playing War Book Club Meeting Guidelines: First, have someone read the book aloud. Then give everyone a chance to answer this Circle Question: Luke and his friends thought of several things they could do before they decided to play war. What is one thing you like to play or do either by yourself or with friends?
Questions about the book to choose from:

  1. What were some things that made playing war games fun or interesting for the kids?
  2. What about the way they divided into Soldiers and Enemies? Have you ever divided into teams that way?
    How do you usually choose teams?
  3. Why do you think Luke wore a dog tag?
  4. Why do you think Sameer had a top with him?
  5. Do you think Sameer really had to go home early that first day? What do you think he was feeling then?
  6. Luke said he wished they had a real war for kids. Why might he have said that?
  7. Sameer surprised his friends by saying there was a war for kids. What did he mean?
  8. What do you think Sameer did when he went home from school the day the shells hit his house? What might he have felt and thought?
  9. What made Luke erase the letter S and the letter E?
  10. What else would you like to say about the story?

Questions about life:

  1. Things changed the second day when the kids knew more about Sameer. What can we do to make it easier to get to know someone else and the things that are important to them?
  2. Wars have always hurt people, including people who didn't plan to be in them. What can be done to help make wars not needed?

Activity #2: Make a Top!

Enjoy a toy of your own as you think about Sameer's life and his play.

Why do this activity? Children will learn about the skills involved in playing with different types of toys. They'll have fun creating their own toy, at almost no cost—an idea they can share with others too. It gives them an "anchor" to Sameer's experience, and sparks curiosity about his play with a wooden top. They can also explore other toys and games that are popular in other cultures.

You will need: A box of toothpicks (or at least 3 or 4 toothpicks for each person), a cereal box or other light cardboard or heavy paper, and a thumbtack.

How to do it:

  1. Cut a circle out of cardboard or heavy paper, about 2 inches in diameter. Add color or designs if you wish.
  2. Lay it on a cutting board or old magazine and poke a tiny hole in the middle with your tack.
  3. Carefully push the small end of the toothpick through the hole so it sticks out about an inch.
  4. Hold the top of the toothpick in your fingers and SPIN YOUR TOP! Then, experiment! Does a double-decker (two cardboard circles) work as well? Circles of various sizes? Two toothpicks instead of one? Just have fun, like Sameer did!

Activity #3: Media Collage Exploration

Stories with violent images are commonplace in the media, with the result that many children or adults don't notice it! Are peaceful images as frequent?

Why do this activity? Discussing violence in the media helps kids better understand how violence is presented to the public and how this affects their concept of the problem.

  1. Ask students to bring in magazines and newspapers and have each student cut out the images, words, advertisements, and titles that they perceive to be violent along with images they identify as peaceful.
  2. Have the kids create collages combining both the peaceful images and the violent images they have collected.

Encourage questions, thoughts, and feelings about violence in the media. Ask questions like: How has violence in the media affected your views of violence? How is the violence on the news different from the violence you see on TV shows? Do news reports tell about friendly actions and positive problem-solving as often as they report on violence? Why or why not?

Activity #4: Learning Even More

Why do this activity? Students' curiosity will make this a good time to explore other questions sparked by Playing War. The learning can continue in these and other areas students initiate.

Want to know more about war refugees?

The I.R.C (International Rescue Committee) is a non-profit organization that coordinates aid to refugees in countries in war and conflict. Visitors may find this site most valuable for learning about both refugee life and the areas affected by war. Extensive resources on Afghanistan, the horn of Africa, and Kosove.

Want to know more about kids' ideas of a peaceful world?

Ask students to imagine what a world at peace might be like. To help them imagine this, have them visit the United Nations "Pictures of Peace" exhibit. There, students will see drawings by other kids from around the world and a collaborative poem created by children from 38 countries in 1997.
For additional ideas about teaching children about efforts to make the world more peaceful visit the website designed by PBS in the days in the aftermath of 9/11. These resources were intended to help educators teach students about peace, tolerance, war, patriotism, geography, and other related issues. Although time has passed, educators can continue to use these valuable resources to teach lessons on these important subjects.

Want to know more about kids learning to be peacemakers?

For a variety of ways children can experience being peacemakers and learn about others and their work for peace visit the following websites:

Want to know more about the use of tops around the world?

Teachers may wish to share this story with their students:

Kathy Beckwith says the inspiration for Sameer's top came from her son Kip. Kip was born in India, where Kathy's family was working. They came back to the U.S. when he was only a few months old, but then they returned to India when Kip was a fourth-grader. At first things were so different from home that it was hard for Kip to feel happy in India.

Then one day he saw a boy throwing a top! Most of the children knew how to throw tops or quickly learned along with Kip. Kip made many trips to the bazaar buying tops and top strings. They started a Top Club and had Top Night at the school. Adults who hadn't thrown tops for years began showing the kids how they did it when they were young. The tops became a bridge of friendship and a way of seeing India through new eyes for Kip. When he came back home, he brought a nice supply of tops and strings for his friends in the U.S.—and good memories of all the fun he had in India.

As she worked on Playing War, Kathy learned that wooden tops are played with all over the world. She knew then that Sameer would have a top in his pocket and it would be something to help him feel "at home" during hard times. It would also become something he could share with his new friends.

Lea Lyon, the illustrator of Playing War, had Kip send her digital photos of him throwing a top, tossing it up into the air by the string, and catching it on his hand still spinning, so that she could draw the pictures of Sameer.

An Internet source for information on tops and other traditional children's games is:

Want to know more about popular American toys?

The National Toy Hall of Fame was established in 1998 by A. C. Gilbert's Discovery Village, a children's museum in Salem, Oregon, to recognize toys that have achieved longevity and national significance in the world of play and imagination. The hall quickly outgrew its original home and in 2002, Strong Museum, which houses the world's largest and most comprehensive collection of toys and dolls (more than 70,000 items), acquired it and moved it to its permanent home in Rochester, New York. The hall serves as an interpretive gateway to Strong Museum's world-renowned collection and provides additional opportunities for both hands-on experiences and intergenerational memory sharing among guests.

Want to know more about war veterans and about those who won't go to war?

Education World has developed a number of interesting resources to educate students about past wars and ways of honoring veterans.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial serves as a testament to the sacrifice of American soldiers during one of this nation's least popular wars. It is the single-most visited memorial in Washington.

There are also veterans or those of military age, who because of their religious faith or personal beliefs, come to the decision that they cannot take part in war. Some of them have become conscientious objectors. Though the resources about them that we found on the Internet are not easily read by young children, their stories can be read by adults and retold to children. Find examples at:

You can find a classroom activity on conscientious objection in the United Kingdom at:

Author's Reflections: Why Did I Write Playing War? —Kathy Beckwith

A little boy told me, "I wish they had a war for children." Not too long afterward, another boy, also dressed in camouflage, said he wanted to be in a war and wondered if I knew where he could get some pants to match his shirt and hat. They're both very fun kids, nice kids, and I realized that we had let them down. I wondered how many other children thought war was "fun."

As the war in Iraq unfolded, a young girl named Noor Jasim, from Iraq, drew a picture of "Peace" for American kids, saying that the children of Iraq wanted peace. I put her picture and her drawing in our mediation room at school and hung her picture in our dining room at home.

I believe in the power of words and in the possibility of change. And I believe in kids' caring and sensitivity. I've seen them at work in hundreds of mediations, shifting, helping each other find solutions to hard problems, reaching out to each other, being really creative in astounding ways. I knew that if I gave life to some characters like the real kids I love, they'd find a solution that would have something to say to us, and that's what happened.

I suspect I wrote Playing War because I thought the kids in the story might inspire us all to know we can learn about each other, we can think about costs, and we can find a better way than war to work things out, even hard things.

And then, Jennifer Bunting, the publisher at Tilbury House called to say they liked the story, too. And I danced!

Green America approved