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It’s nearly the end of the first day of third grade, and the children are antsy. All day long, they’ve been pointing to a place on the schedule where we’ve written 1:30–2:30: The GAME, and all day long they’ve been asking “What’s that? What does that mean?” All day long, we’ve been cagey with our responses. ”You’ll just have to wait and see…” we’ve answered, watching as the frustration and excitement builds all at once.

Andrea has put a lot of thought into the coming hour. Partly inspired by John Hunter’s World Peace Game, she has landed on a similar way to challenge our third graders. After splitting them into four-person teams, we’ll ask the students to play a complicated game that will test their social capabilities. The name of the game? Settlers of Catan.

“It’s almost too much,” Andrea has told me about the rules, strategies, and nuances of Settlers of Catan. The game –especially when played in teams– is simultaneously so challenging and so exciting that whatever impulse children have to give up because of the challenge is superseded by the desire to keep playing. This is essential. Without a reason to need to work together and keep their team afloat, the children could find ways to skip over the very thing we want them to work on: collaboration.

“The point of this game is to learn how to work together,” Andrea says to the third graders, before she even explains the how to play. “Your team might not include people who you might normally choose to be with. You might be on a team with your best friend, you might not. But we’re all going to be cheerful about who we work with, because you’ll need to work together if you want to do well.”

*

Andrea played Settlers of Catan with her third graders last year, but even as a new member of the third grade teaching team, I had no trouble being convinced of its value.

This summer I was fortunate enough to attend the Opal School Summer Symposium at the Opal School in Portland Oregon. There, the Opal 3 teacher, Hannah Chandler, spoke about the work with her students that led her to a different understanding of conflict than what she had previously held. She said that as an elementary school teacher, she had often tried to avoid and derail any and all conflicts between her students. She avoided situations where conflict might arise, believing that it took time away from other, more important pursuits. But in her first year with the Opal 3 students, she learned that taking time to tease out and work through conflict was an invaluable use of instructional hours.

“Conflict,” Hannah said, “means that children are invested. Conflict happens in communities, and that’s okay. What matters is how we bring the community back into balance.”

She even went so far as to quote Parker J. Palmer who writes: “Community is that place where the person you least want to live with always lives. When that person moves away, someone else immediately arises to take his or her place.”

Her presentation inspired Andrea and me to think, “How could we foster a sense of real community…where not everything is always hunky dory? A place where conflict is real and present…where you can’t simply ignore the people you disagree with?”

So, taking a leaf from Hannah’s book – rather than shying away from any experience that might possibly create conflict – we decided to go searching for conflict. We created teams that we fully expect will disagree, and we chose to play Settlers of Catan – a contentious game by nature.

When, five minutes into the game, Andrea says to the class, “I’m already hearing teams fight,” neither of us bat an eye. We have expected this, even hoped for this. The children are arguing because they have strong opinions on what moves their team should make – they feel that their team needs their opinions and their actions. Their argumentation is the opposite of apathy.

*

“Why? Explain why you want to make that move.” Andrea says, guiding the orange team through its first turn. With Andrea’s constant reminders, the orange team switches from talking loudly over each other (“We should trade for wheat!” “No, we should save up for a settlement!”) to communicating their plans. When the orange team is finally happy with a cohesive decision, Andrea recognizes the strategies that made it possible. “May,” she says, “you did enough explaining for your teammates to understand what you were talking about and agree with you.”

Over the next thirty minutes, Andrea makes other carefully-timed remarks.

“What are you going to do if your team disagrees?”

“Think about who on your team is not as involved.”

“Would it be helpful to create specific jobs on your team?”

Each day that we play, more and more of Andrea’s words begin to take root. Without coaching, the children begin to echo Andrea’s sentiments.

Reese (when his teammates all begin talking at once): “One at a time!”

Tom: “Can I be the house-builder and you can be the road-builder?”

Nolan: “Marissa should move the robber because she doesn’t have a job yet.”

Kaiya: “A [team] vote isn’t fair because then the person who doesn’t agree doesn’t get what they want.”

Teacher: "So you want your team to discuss each move until you have a unanimous decision?"
Kaiya: “Yes.”

Sydney: “Sorry Nolan, we voted and the majority wants to make this trade.”

Emerson: “Sorry Tom, we can’t trade you. Our team doesn’t agree on it.”

*

We give over time during the day to this game because we believe that children need space and time to practice resolving conflicts responsibly. If they can practice communication and flexible thinking now, in our classroom’s low-risk environment, how better prepared will they be for the playground, for high school, for their first real job, when an adult is not present to lead them to a solution?

We ask them to participate in this difficult experience because we know that it is hard, and we know that they can do it.

About the Author: 

Mauren, a Sabot Preschool alumna, is excited to begin her third year teaching at Sabot at Stony Point, and her first with the third grade. Having received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Archaeology from the University of Virginia, Mauren has discovered a passion for teaching and is committed to making a difference in education. She is inspired by the collaboration and community among Sabot at Stony Point students, as well as among the faculty and staff.