Playing for Peace: Inspiring a New Generation of Peacemakers in Guatemala

Last year, Play for Peace worked with the Conflict and Development Foundation at Texas A&M to bring laughter and joy to children in Guatemala. Johanna Roman, the Foundation’s program manager, reflects on the experience and the amazing changes she witnessed in the children there. We are excited to be partnering again on March 10!

Most of us who have worked in international development are familiar with the challenges of conducting peace building programs in communities deeply affected by conflict and poverty. After conducting numerous youth development programs in Central America for many years focusing on horticulture and nutrition, I decided to start a new program to incorporate play as a tool to teach respect, compassion, and perhaps break the cycle of violence, while helping kids become the new generation of peacemakers.

While conducting food security programs for Mayan children, I quickly became aware of the challenges of working with vulnerable kids who are living in unsafe and poor communities. They have many problems in life—malnourishment, poverty, social exclusion, insecure environments, and more. I wanted to conduct a program that could motivate kids to step away from their every-day challenges and bring joy, but also help them to become architects and leaders of peace.  I came across Play for Peace®, and rapidly became interested in how their volunteers and trainers use play as an innovative catalyst for peace.

That is why with support from the Conflict and Development Foundation, I decided to launch a new program in several Guatemalan villages: Playing for Peace. I want kids to learn about compassion, respect, and trust, all while having fun! These kids already have too many struggles.  I want to use collaborative play as a tool for promoting inclusion and peace. Through play, I want kids to learn to care about each other; to share; to create solidarity; to work together, and thus create a culture of peace.

One thing that I have learned is that when working with young kids, I have to expect the unexpected! I originally thought that the kids attending my workshops would be sad and unmotivated because of the struggles they have in life. I was mistaken. When kids show up for one of my workshops, most of them share a sense of excitement and an eagerness to participate. They come ready to engage in collaborative activities and in the process, they begin to make new friends. Laughter begins to emerge as soon as we start our first activity.

Play for Peace® is a nonprofit organization that works around the world to bring together children, youth, volunteers, and organizations from communities in conflict, using cooperative play to create laughter, compassion, and peace. I sought their expertise and recently held our initial “Playing for Peace” training workshop in Guatemala for a group of twenty Texas A&M University students who quickly learned effective tools to work with Mayan kids.

Sarah Gough, the executive director of Play for Peace, quickly arranged for me to coordinate the first workshop in El Tejar, Guatemala. Andrés Armas, who has been a Play for Peace trainer for many years, conducted an intensive leadership training workshop. This is what happened.

Andrés starts by asking everyone to stand in a circle. “Everyone is welcome, nobody is excluded,” he says. In a circle, nobody has a better spot than anyone else. “No one is behind you, no one is in front of you.” I observed how kids immediately felt part of the group.

Games are based on inclusion and participation from everyone; this generates communication, trust, and respect. The end goal is to combine their skills and ideas and have fun in the process.

Andrés quickly engages students in a couple of icebreaker games. Laughter begins to fill the room and the mood is set—this will be a fun!

Andrés facilitates several games and students learn what it takes to be a good Play for Peace facilitator. The Play for Peace manual he shared with us includes a list of qualities: be a good communicator, be kind, be friendly, be creative, be flexible, be sensible, and be patient.

After this intensive training program for leaders, kids begin to arrive for the first practice session. They come in groups, happily walking through dusty roads holding hands and giggling. They arrive at the outdoor classroom and quickly become shy. It is time for the first icebreaker.

“Stand in a circle,” Andrés says. “Everyone is welcome.” They start with fun icebreakers. Andrés has told students that the first 15-20 minutes of the event are critical, so they must choose their favorite activities. “Enjoy each activity,” Andrés tells the students. 

It is amazing what can happen in two hours! The A&M students who might have been anxious to work with kids or unable to communicate with them because of the language barrier, are quickly leading games, holding kids and twirling them around, and sharing their laughter.

“It is ok to be nervous,” Andrés tells the students during the training session. “You are here to teach and to learn at the same time.” Andrés brings out a huge colorful parachute and soon no one is nervous. Everyone is engaged in teamwork activities and their enthusiasm is contagious. When they are having the most fun, Andrés stops the activity. Students are shocked, but what he says made sense: “Stop an activity at its peak, when kids are having the most fun.”

There are no barriers here. No one is thinking or acknowledging their differences. Everyone is sharing in the excitement of being part of a team. Some begin to exhibit leadership qualities. Some are happy just to follow and play along. The Texas A&M students immediately apply the Play for Peace methodologies and the kids respond very well and immerse themselves in cooperative play. The lessons on how to effectively work with kids are put into action. Kids are collaborating with each other, forming circles, laughing, learning, and forgetting for a few hours about all their struggles. They can’t wait until the next Play for Peace workshop.

I am now taking a course on the science of happiness to prepare for our next event in Guatemala. In our next Play for Peace training session, I would like to explore challenges in getting some of the more quiet kids to participate. I would also like to review tools on how to become comfortable leading a group. Also, I would like for our leaders to learn how to customize and deliver Play for Peace trainings to different groups of kids.