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Think back to fourth grade. What were you doing in school? Were you practicing fractions? Learning photosynthesis? Maybe you were studying the British colonization of the New World?
Well, if we fast-forward to now, a modern-day fourth grader named Sarah Schmidt has been up to something a little bit different.
"We made the treaty last week about buying the land," she explains. "And once we bought the land we bought 20,000 troops before that, with our solar-power plants, our two submarines and our oxygen-production plant. So now we're scattering them and making sure that areas are covered for military strike."
Sarah Schmidt, you see, isn't just a fourth grader at Agnor-Hurt Elementary School in Charlottesville, Va. Sarah Schmidt is an officer in the United Nations.
"I'm the CFO," she says, "helping out with all the military stuff that's going on. And this morning, there's a ton of "military stuff" going on. Because we're several weeks in to the World Peace Game: a geo-political simulation dreamed up in 1978, by Sarah's teacher, John Hunter, who has chronicled his adventures in a brand new book: World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements.
Hunter holds a pointer in his hand as he stands beside a 4' by 4' by 4' Plexiglas structure containing four levels of platforms.
"There's an undersea level down here, and a ground-sea level with factories and cities and troops and ICBMs and religious shrines and all the things we have on earth," he explains. "We've got an aircraft level, with territorial air space and air forces, clouds and weather that move around randomly. And then we have an outer-space layer with asteroid mining, space stations, satellites, and even a black hole right there; the kids have to solve that, too."
As Hunter says, "The kids have to solve that, too," because it's one of the 50 global crises he presents to his students at the start of the World Peace Game. These 50 crises run the gamut, from famines and ethnic, religious and minority rights disputes to endangered species and hazardous waste spills. And the way Hunter's designed it, all these crises the students must solve are interconnected.
"So there's no conventional solution," he says. "They have to create and invent a solution. I myself who invented it can't figure it out, can't solve it. It's always up to the organic collective wisdom they always seem to have when they go to play."
Learning teamwork and leadership
The students "go to play" in four teams, each representing an imaginary country, "and the names change with each group of students that play the game," Hunter says. "They name their own countries."
They also take on leadership roles in their countries: prime minister, secretary of state, minister of defense, and CFO. Students who aren't in the four countries — like our UN CFO Sarah Schmidt — take on other roles, since the game also includes a UN, arms dealers and a World Bank.
Hunter also assigns two more positions: the saboteur, and the weather god or goddess. "And they're there really to offset the children's good intentions," Hunter says. The saboteur does that through, you guessed it: sabotage.
"Through ambiguity, misdirection, misinformation, and a small budget with mercenaries and a couple of ICBMs, they're trying to destabilize the entire game," Hunter says.
"Everybody knows that person's in the room. Nobody knows who it is. So it causes every student to have think more critically and deeply about everything that's said in the room, all the time."
As for the weather god or goddess, this time around, that role is being played by Kaitlyn Galloway. The weather goddess has two spin boards. She uses one to control the stock market and one to control the weather. With so much going on, Kaitlyn admits that, initially, the World Peace Game was pretty scary.
"It was pretty nerve-wracking at first," she says. "There are a lot of problems in the world that we should solve."
But she eventually realized how much can be achieved with cooperation from fellow players. And Sarah Schmidt agrees.
"Teamwork has a big role in this game because if you don't get along it could be a long way down the pain train," she exclaims.
To win the World Peace Game, Hunter points out that students must make two things happen: They must solve all 50 crises, and every country's asset value must have increased past its starting point.
"That kind of collaboration, I don't have to teach it, I don't have to preach it," Hunter says. "If you can allow the learning to happen organically, and it comes from within them and within their own experience, it's so much richer and deeper and it lasts so much longer than if it's imposed from outside."
Learning to save the world
John Hunter has been playing the World Peace Game for more than three decades: at his school, in summer camps, and with students in Norway. And in all the years he's played, he's never seen students lose. Not once.
"Sometimes it's a very dire situation where it doesn't seem possible, but they've always managed to win the game," he says.
Part of it, he says, is how his students collaborate. But another part is how he behaves. He doesn't butt in to the game, or tell his students what to do and what not to do. Instead, he treats these CFOs and prime ministers and secretaries of state as peers. Equals.
"So together, we become co-teachers," he says. "And they, in this safe place, can say, 'well, we'll just try and if it doesn't work, we'll try something else. And if it doesn't work, we'll try something else.' We get better and better trying. And eventually they win.
"They save the world every time. And they're going to grow up and hopefully be able to do that for real."
[Music: "All Around the World" by Sweet Little Band from Babies Go Oasis]
Photos: World Peace Game