CONSIDER THIS: Peace is Child's Play

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donaldsonBy O. Fred Donaldson*

TRUMBULL,CT, USA - Albert Einstein asks, “Is the universe friendly?”

A sign in Mother Teresa’s children’s home in Calcutta is a Zen-like reply to Einstein’s question: “Take time to play, take time to love and be loved.”

Instead of answering the question, the sign tells us what to do in order to discover the answer for ourselves.

Theologians, poets, scientists and philosophers have looked out into the world through the peephole of our finite humanity hoping to see the infinite face of Creation, and have struggled eloquently to make sense of the universe and find our peace in it. While many scientists and sages acknowledge that a sustaining pattern of unity exists in life, they haven’t known how to develop it. Nor do they know where to look to find it.

Despite the hints given by Jesus, Buddha and Gandhi, we’ve been looking for peace in all the wrong places. Embodied peace already exists where we have never thought to seriously search—within children’s original play. Elie Wiesel calls children “bearer[s] of promise.” What’s the promise? This promise is described in a deceptively simple sentence—peace is child’s play. The promise is that the birth of every child is life’s way of giving us the opportunity for a profound and until now unheeded behavioral paradigm shift from a contest world of won to a playful world of one. Children dismissed as nothing more than ciphers turn out to be the bearers of life’s most important promise—peace. The peace we are seeking involves a sort of pilgrimage whose goal is to return to our origins and in so doing become who we really are.

A Natural Gift

Children’s original play is not an artifact of culture, but rather an enthusiastic gift from Creation to all life. This enthusiasm in its original sense of “engoddedness,” being filled with God, is what makes original play original. In our original play, unity is embodied and experienced as a deep pattern of belonging that reprograms basic and enduring psychophysiological postures. Imagine, for example, a world with no winning or losing, no fault and no revenge. Such a world may seem unbelievable, but children have shown me that it is not unlivable.

Nelson Mandela wrote, “In South Africa children must be able to play again.” Why? Because their original play is a contract with the human spirit that reinstates the original meaning of childhood into the direction and growth of human life, thereby fulfilling childhood’s promise of peace. Original play’s inherent kindness is a breathtakingly ingenious neural pattern recognition system that “remaps” the brain, destructuring, deprogramming and deconditioning fear while promoting neural plasticity and strengthening specific neurological circuits that generate peacefulness, awareness and compassion. Original play is an innate ecological intelligence in which we share the rapture of being alive, an ineffable experience where reality is the same in oneself as in everyone else, and where action emerges out of the present moment without reflection, where one knows how one should relate spontaneously, without thinking.

Being Human

Forty years ago, children seized my imagination, bringing me little of what I expect, but quite a bit of what has proven to be what I need. Their enthusiastic play is a kind of graceful triage as they teach me again and again to widen my circle of compassion to embrace all life. In doing so, they haven’t made my life easier; they’ve made it more holy—and that is more difficult. They show me that I am not who I think I am, but rather who I pretend I cannot become. And by that, I am made greater in my imagination and my humanity.

One morning, in the midst of a lecture to educators and social workers in Manila, eight street children were brought to play with me as a demonstration. As I crawled toward the children, they squealed and ran around the mats. Their tentative touch evolved into jumping on my back and running into my arms. One of the teenage girls smiled shyly, but stood back from our play. The teenager who was playing reached out to her hesitant friend with the invitation, “Come, it’s OK. He’s human too.”

Some months later I sat in a school playground in Athlone, a township near Cape Town. Curious and excited, the young children surrounded me. A small boy squeezed through the others and crawled into my lap. He wrapped his tiny arms around me and snuggled in close in the midst of the crowding, jostling and laughing children. The bell signaled the children to line up; the little boy continued hugging me. After a few moments he got up, waved and walked into school.

A teacher who had observed us asked if I knew about the little boy in my lap. She said that he had been at the school for only a week. He was brought to the school after he was found tied up in a black plastic bag and thrown away in a pile of trash. I turned away and looked through tears back out onto the playground.

In original play, nothing is acquired theoretically; everything is experienced. The result of such practice is a sense of kindness that can be communicated to all life.

During a break in a New York City workshop for gang members, an 18-year-old asked me, “Can you help me not to fight? When someone touches me, I hit without thinking. I’m tired of fighting and talking to the principal and the police every day.” I asked him if he would come up in front of the others with me after the break. He agreed. We stood facing each other. I asked him, “Can I push you?” He nodded yes. I pushed him. He merely shifted his feet. “Can I push you harder?” He shrugged and nodded. I shoved him harder. Reflexively, his right fist shot toward my face. I deflected his fist with the back of my hand, bringing it down to my chest where I held it softly. We hugged and sat down.

When I sat down, the young woman sitting next to me whispered, “Did you see his eyes?”

I nodded. He was crying. The teenager’s reflexive response to touch was aggression. This time, however, there was no victim, no aggressor, no blame and no revenge. This is the promise of original play. The young man later asked me, “Can I learn to do this with children?”

“Of course,” I said. We hugged again and went our separate ways. But not as separate as before.

By the sheer force of their loving, these children refuse to give in to suffering. I felt from them no blame, no anger, no fear nor revenge. Their willingness to embrace difference and not retreat in fear takes great courage. They ask nothing more from me than the courage to return their love. Together we make conflict obsolete.

A five-year-old, David, once said to me, “Play is when we don’t know that we are different from each other.” Children teach me that original play is a pact with Creation, hidden in the profusion and diversity of life. As another five-year-old boy said after playing, “Real play is when no one is crying and no one has a broken heart.” Rumi advised us to “Gamble everything for love.” Go ahead. Join us. Play as if your life depends on it. It does.


* O. Fred Donaldson PhD is a play specialist who is internationally recognized for his research and use of play with children and animals for 40 years. He has coined the term “original play” to describe his work. He is a consultant to families, educational, social service, health and environment organizations, as well as corporations and athletic groups. He is the author of Playing by Heart. See
www.originalplay.eu. This article first appeared in 'SGI Quarterly' in July 2013 and is being reproduced with the author's due permission.

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