- What do I know about peace? How does it feel? What words describe it?
- Do I show my friends and family how much I value them? When and how?
- How do I work to mend problems with others when they arise?
- How do I help children learn to practice cooperation, concern for others, empathy, communication, and conflict resolution in their daily relationships?
- What does ’community’ mean to me? What communities do I belong to, by choice or by chance?
- Do I identify stereotypes when I hear others use them? What about when I use them myself?
- Do I value the concept of citizenship? Do I vote, contact my representatives, and take advantage of the opportunities that citizenship provides?
- What is stewardship? Do I act as a steward of our environment?
- What is global citizenship? Do I see myself as a global citizen?
For close to ten minutes, two-year-old Oscar* has been intently washing a baby doll in a plastic tub. Now it is Rachel’s turn, but Oscar is not ready to give up his washcloth. He splashes the lukewarm water and shouts, his face—not much larger than the doll’s—knotted with frustration. Before he can lash out at Rachel, their teacher at the YMCA child care center, Elizabeth Richards, takes Oscar by the hand and leads him away. His lip is still quivering as he surrenders the tub, but he follows Elizabeth to the book corner and settles on her lap. Before long, he is absorbed in Eric Carle’s The Very Quiet Cricket, and other children have drifted over to sit next to him and listen in.
What gives reading the power to shift the mood in a classroom so swiftly? What do picture books—many of them filled with conflict, or even violence—have to teach us about peace? How can adults help children experience peace when they aren’t feeling particularly peaceful themselves? These are some of the questions that the educators who care for Maine’s youngest children tackle in the newest Born to Read initiative, Peaceable Stories.
Since launching its Many Eyes, Many Voices training in 2002, Born to Read has been asking early childhood educators to indicate their interest in other potential training topics. “Dealing with challenging behavior” consistently ranks near the top of these lists. The demand for conflict resolution training has kept pace with growing uncertainty about global politics. While children have always engaged in war play to help them process their feelings of power and anger, research shows that increasingly, war-play plots and characters are copied from media imagery rather than coming from the imagination. Children worry about the violence they see on television surfacing in their own lives—which it all too often does.
Early childhood consultant Audrey Maynard worked with Born to Read staff and a statewide advisory committee to respond in a thoughtful manner to the demand from caregivers. Maynard was conscious of the potential controversy surrounding a training with “peace” in its title, and she recalls working hard “to ensure that every participant would be able to engage in the workshops no matter what their political views were.” Thus the program interprets the concept of peace broadly, considering various connotations and contexts. “I am happy,” Maynard says now, “when participants leave feeling that their own views have been respected and that they have new ambitions for their work with children.”
Creating a peaceful environment for young children is not as easy as it sounds. Preschool teachers ban toy guns in the classroom only to confront index fingers wielded as weapons. They try to prevent children from saying “bad words” only to be informed that “Mommy uses that word every night.” In our rapidly changing world, even the most experienced educators need the opportunity to discuss these challenges and become aware of resources and strategies to help them develop new approaches to conflict.
That’s where Born to Read comes in. Its Peaceable Stories initiative is based on the conviction that picture books—and the very important conversations and activities generated through book sharing—have the power to:
- help children become creative problem-solvers,
- foster the development of vocabulary for expressing emotions,
- present examples of the experience of peace, which differs from person to person,
- provide opportunities for reflecting on the meaning of peace, and
- nurture dispositions toward peaceful play and relationships.
Through the lens of a story, children can learn new options for peaceful co-existence and conflict resolution. Talking about characters and their relationships fosters empathy and provides children with a rich repertoire of problem-solving strategies. And the peaceful act of sharing a book can calm the hectic atmosphere of a preschool classroom, offering adults like Elizabeth Richards a rare chance to truly connect with children like Oscar.
Elizabeth was drawn to Peaceable Stories because she had already taken Many Eyes, Many Voices, and knew that Born to Read trainings “identify specific books and then help with ideas on how to use them.” Sure enough, within a few weeks of taking Peaceable Stories, she had successfully used her new copy of It’s Mine by Leo Lionni (1972). In this story, three frogs quarrel over the rocks and water in their pond, until a wise toad shows them that it’s both safer and more pleasant to cooperate. As Elizabeth points out, “It seems forced to sit down with toddlers and ’talk about sharing,’ but it’s easy to read a story and interject a few pertinent points that relate to them directly.” That’s what she did-then, using the Activity & Resource Guide that came with the books, she went one step further to bring the book to life for the children. She made a pond from construction paper, pasted each child’s picture on a cut-out frog, and asked them to work together to place their frogs in the pond, making space for everyone.
Eight Peaceable Stories trainings have been held in 2007, from Skowhegan to Presque Isle to Lubec. Do all the participants now care for docile children in quiet classrooms? Of course not—and if they did, Born to Read would be the first to admit that the initiative had gone drastically wrong. The program does not claim to provide a one-size-fits-all solution to conflict in early childhood education. Indeed, researcher Janet Gonzalez-Mena has written (Multicultural Issues in Child Care, 2000), “It is only after we realize that conflict is where the growth occurs that we know what we ought to aim for. It is only after we realize that conflict is good and that it won’t go away that we will be able to effectively respond to diversity in early childhood training and, therefore, in early childhood classrooms.”
The impact of the initiative is incremental, but it is real. One participant wrote in an evaluation, “Sharing new books with the children is sometimes hard, both for me and for them. But I believe now I can hold their interest with involvement in activities.” Another reflected, “It’s nice to get other perspectives. Sometimes my first impression of a book isn’t great, but hearing how others use it or think about it can change that impression.” And a third commented, “I have a better understanding of how to make an abstract concept much more age-appropriate by bringing it into everyday life.”
Everyday life for Oscar remains tumultuous. He has not learned to share, and he can’t express his emotions using words. But today he felt calm while listening to a story about a little cricket who finds his chirp. And the next time he is frustrated, perhaps he’ll remember that brave cricket and that peaceful moment, and he’ll ask an adult to read to him.
*Children’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Illustrations by Lisa Jahn-Clough from the Peaceable Stories Activity & Resource Guide.