Fourth Grade Runs the World, Achieves Peace


A handwritten notice posted to the classroom door attempts to minimize disruptions of the mighty initiative underway inside.

“World Peace Game in progress,” it reads. “According to official rules of play, visitors are welcome for up to ten minutes.”

Don’t let the “game” in the title fool you. This is serious, important work.

The World Peace Game is a geopolitical simulation and conflict resolution exercise staged last spring by Penn Charter’s fourth grade. Over the course of five school days, the Class of 2026 gathered in the Lower School IdeaLab for three-hour sessions as they attempted to save a fictional civilization from disaster.

The objective is twofold: Resolve 25 interconnected crises before time runs out, and increase each fictional country’s assets from their beginning amounts.

But executing that objective proves difficult in the complex, troubled world of the World Peace Game, where catastrophe looms on multiple fronts—environmental, political, military, economic.

Over the course of the week, students, working as teams of nations and international agencies, must design legislation, craft treaties and pool their resources and talents to ensure the survival of organized human life.

John Hunter, a fourth grade teacher in Virginia, began developing the game in 1978 to engage his students with a more hands- on social studies curriculum. He refined it over the years and then made it available to other educators, who must first pass through his training program. The game has been played at schools all over the U.S. and internationally, by students in grades four through twelve. An award-winning documentary film called World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements brought the game to greater prominence in 2010, and was followed by Hunter’s book of the same name and a TED Talk.

When Hunter visited Penn Charter in 2014 as part of Penn Charter’s Distinguished Speaker Series, he gave a presentation to the fourth grade about his game. The fourth grade teachers took note of their students’ excitement and were intrigued by Hunter’s ideas. They worked with school leaders to bring the World Peace Game to PC.

Teachers prepared during the 2016-17 school year to study the game in preparation for its inaugural run. Maria- Odilia Romeu read Hunter’s book and attended one of his weeklong training sessions to become certified as a facilitator.

Sonia Duprez and Laura Valdmanis followed suit, completing their training in the spring and summer of 2017, respectively, using PC professional development funds.

The teacher training included daily observations of a game in session, followed by seminar-style classes with Hunter, whom Valdmanis calls the game’s “guru.” One of the points Hunter stressed over and over, she said, was the importance of letting the kids take ownership and control over the game.

“It’s a lot about the teacher letting go,” Valdmanis said. “We’re not solving it for [the kids]. If they’re interested and they can develop it, they’re going to get a lot more out of it.”


DAY ONE

On Day One, the fourth grade gathers to review the game’s objectives and protocol, and to learn about each country’s unique inheritance of land, wealth, natural resources and conflicts.

Students sit in a big circle around a four- tiered gameboard in the center of the room. Each layer of this towering, plexiglass-and- PVC-pipe structure represents a layer of the planet’s environment where conflicts play out. Hundreds of tiny game pieces are strewn across each one.

Duprez, Romeu and Valdmanis take turns acting as facilitator over the course of the week, and all three bring a tasteful sense of gravitas to their role. They speak with formality and intensity, and dress more staidly than usual on game days to help get into character. They begin each session with a reading from The Art of War, the ancient Chinese military treatise (which Hunter recommends for its wisdom on “how to stay out of war”). Their performance proves crucial for creating a sense of immersion in the fictional world of the game.

On Day One, Romeu holds the floor. “I’m sorry we have to play this game, but the adults have really messed up the world,” she says by way of opening. “Maybe you can help figure out how to fix it.”

She paces around the gameboard as she gets into the details of nations and resources, using a retractable metal pointer to indicate key areas on each of the board’s four levels— undersea, land and sea, air, and outer space.

Romeu’s audience fidgets and yawns. The kids are not yet rapt with attention as they will be in another few days. Immersion happens gradually.

But this is by design. The World Peace Educator’s Guide outlines a seven-step progression in which students pass through stages of boredom and “overwhelming confusion” on their way to “mastery” and problem-solving prowess. That way, they experience a transformation of their expectations and an expanded sense of their capabilities over the course of the week.

“In the beginning, the teachers were just saying the rules, but when we got started it was really fun,” says fourth grader Harper Roland after the game.

On Thursday morning, PC parent Imana Legette reports being hurried out the door by her fourth-grade son in an unlikely role-reversal. Nathan—a.k.a. Mr. Legette, secretary of state for the nation of Green Valley—was eager to get to school. He had important business to attend to.


DAY TWO

Day Two begins with role selections. Valdmanis announces prime ministers and agency heads, then these leaders elect their peers to fill cabinet positions. A polite round of applause breaks out with each job acceptance.

Valdmanis gently enforces game etiquette during the proceedings, prompting her students to address each other by title and surname—Mr. Ward, Prime Minister Jacobs, Secretary Lin.

The five organizations are the World Bank, World Court, United Nations, an international press corps and a group of arms dealers. The four nations are dubbed Green Valley, Springdale, Riverwash and Sandtile by their respective delegates.

Everyone receives a folder labeled “Top Secret Dossier” that’s full of documents: a vocabulary list, templates for treaties and trade agreements, blank inventory sheets and budget records, and the all-important Crisis Report, with its brief, instructive summaries of the game’s 25 predicaments.

After role selections, the group reviews each crisis together, working their way through the hefty 13-page report as Valdmanis reads aloud and points things out on the board.

There’s an oil embargo, a border dispute, an incident of cyber hacking. There’s a chemical spill, a famine, a disagreement over undersea mining claims and a deadly drone attack from an unknown aggressor.

The review goes on for some time. Around the circle of chairs, fourth grade eyes begin glazing over. Chins are propped up on palms. Valdmanis’ students are clearly still in the phase of boredom and “overwhelming confusion.”

And rightly so. This would seem like overwhelming work for adults. So why heap it on fourth graders?

Hunter believes the complexity and difficulty of his game ultimately drives more profound collaboration and more daring innovation.

“What happens when individuals become aware of their own limitations?” he asks in his book. “One possible result is that they turn, with ever-growing enthusiasm, to the process of collaboration.” When they do, they realize that as a group they are “wiser, more creative, and more farseeing than any one person could ever be.”

There’s also a practical aspect. Solving the real-life crises of our interconnected world will require collaboration and creativity in abundance. How better to prepare kids, who will one day inherit these crises, than with guided practice? The game provides an opportunity to develop valuable life skills—like flexibility, nuanced communication, empathy and responsible risk-taking—that sometimes go underdeveloped through traditional learning methods.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the solutions the students devise are 100 percent airtight, Valdmanis explained after the game. More important is the process by which they arrive at them and the skills they build along the way.

 

DAY THREE

With all the preliminary information out of the way, gameplay begins in earnest on Day Three. The game alternates between two phases called negotiations and declarations, cycling through both a few times each day.

During negotiations, the kids confer freely with their teammates and with colleagues from other nations and agencies. They talk strategy, draft documents, negotiate treaties and consult the gameboard up- close. The room assumes the hustle and bustle of a trading floor.

In contrast, declarations are a hushed, ceremonious affair. The fourth graders convene around the board and stand in turn, as teams, to issue edicts and submit documents for ratification.

There’s a strict ritual to these meetings. As each team takes its turn, leaders stand first and announce themselves before inviting their colleagues to join them. The facilitator guides things along, and students keep track of the day’s updates in their Crisis Reports. While there are standing fines for talking out of turn or disrupting the proceedings, not a single one is issued.

Early on Day Three, a declaration from Sandtile is challenged by Duprez. Though well-intentioned, the country’s pledge to “not drop any bombs” is insufficient as an official document, which requires careful language and fastidious detail.

“Who does your country promise to not drop any bombs on, Prime Minister Garson?”

“Everyone.”

Duprez sends Sandtile back for a re-write; they’ll have a chance to submit a more fully- formed declaration next round.

The first day of gameplay is not without success, though. The kids quickly learn from their missteps, and soon begin engineering viable solutions.

Riverwash and Springdale develop a resettlement program, funded by the World Bank, that solves the refugee crisis unfolding on their shared border.

Green Valley helps stem the spread of a deadly disease halfway across the world in Springdale by developing an antivirus from a plant that grows in abundance within their borders.

The arms dealers begin allocating some of their vast material resources to projects in clean energy and infrastructure.

You can sense the kids gradually transitioning into the phase John Hunter calls the “click,” as they begin to realize the power of their collective identity—and wield it in new and compelling ways. 
 

DAY FOUR

By Day Four, the group has gained some real momentum. Declarations are crafted with greater precision and confidence. Negotiation periods take on a greater sense of urgency. The kids have more fully inhabited their roles and embraced their responsibility.

A whole new lingo circulates in the room. Words most nine- and 10-year-olds would greet with a raised eyebrow—audit, sanction, coup d’etat—have become part of the common parlance. It’s a fitting indication of how willing and eager PC’s fourth graders are to take on the World Peace Game’s challenges.

And one thing’s for sure: this group doesn’t just talk the proverbial talk. That insurgency that’s been on everyone’s tongue all morning? Defused before lunch.
 

DAY FIVE

During the game’s final declaration period, excitement bubbles over, finally breaking the solemnity that has hung over these meetings all week. Three crises remain to be solved, and resolution of each one is met with whoops and cheers. At one point, a bona fide hip-hip-hooray erupts from Green Valley.

Duprez cautions against premature celebration but issues no fines. Five days and 20-some crises later, her students have earned a bit of unrestrained celebration.

Romeu later admits facilitating brought its own challenges for the adults. Besides the difficulty of keeping up with 25 complex, interconnected crises, she found the game’s tactic of “overwhelming [the kids] and then letting them tease it out” to be at odds with her most basic instincts as an elementary educator.

“Our first responsibility is to nurture and take care of these kids. So to sit back and thrust nuclear proliferation and conflicts about territorial waters and oil spills—to thrust all of that on them, you sort of feel guilty.”

But the results speak for themselves. Against tremendous odds, the fourth grade achieves world peace.

And with global warming, nuclear war and global financial meltdown successfully averted, the Class of 2026 was ready to take on its next challenge: fifth grade.

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