Planning for peace

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Early years practitioners must make peace a priority, argues Professor Cathy Nutbrown


'What is war? asked four-year-old Molly. Her seven-year-old sister Ellie replied, 'It's when soldiers have guns and planes and fight.'Molly continued, 'But what is war for?'

Ellie thought for a moment. 'I don't know,' she said.

Many of us are shocked and appalled at the atrocities reported in the media recently.

Rockets and gunfire have left whole families devastated, bullets and bombs sparing neither old nor young. Our televisions have shown graphic images of the devastation of war: young children in the midst of fighting, some carried to their graves by weeping fathers; others fleeing from persecution; mothers without milk for their babies. We see young children at the heart of struggles for survival while we hear calls for peace.

And then there is Molly, naively asking 'What is war?' Molly is safe; she has a home, food, clothes she likes, toys she enjoys and a family who love her. There are many children like Molly, and there are many whose lives are filled with hunger and fear.

The events of recent weeks have prompted me to return again to thinking about how we help our youngest children prepare for a life of peace from the cradle - and ultimately to be advocates of peace in their adulthood. Can all our early years settings give young children experiences of peaceful surroundings where they learn to peacefully challenge wrongs?

Of course, parents and early years practitioners are key to creating environments where respectful behaviour is modelled and equality and diversity are part of an inclusive and socially just place. But I think it needs more than this - I think we need to make peace and social justice our overarching goals.

We need to teach children to challenge inequalities and to seek solutions to difficulties that don't involve fighting and punishing. None of this is easy, but as Mahatma Gandhi said, 'An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind'. Whatever else we offer children, we need to offer them opportunities to learn to be members of a community where they value others and others value them.

As for Molly, when Ellie told her 'I don't know", she said, 'I think they should stop it' and skipped on her way, smiling. In Mother Teresa's words: 'Peace begins with a smile ...'

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