Peace Is Child’s Play

image Dr. O. Fred Donaldson travels the world to play with children, adults, and even all kinds of non-human creatures (including wolves!). The mission of his extraordinary explorations of our mundane pastime? Nothing less than peace.

by O. Fred Donaldson, Ph.D.

“O man, remember!”

Do We Dare To Play?

If an idea is not at first absurd there is no hope for it.
Albert Einstein

This article presents an absurd idea—peace is child’s play. I join with the world’s children in tugging at your hearts, minds, and bodies in the hope that you will listen. I write to initiate us into that which by its very nature surpasses us.  I present a profound and until now unheeded cry for a paradigmatic shift from a contest world of won to a playful world of one. This is a simple but very difficult message to hear much less to live. It involves recasting some of our basic ideas about play, children, and peace. My purpose is to provide both a point of departure and a direction of spirit for those who would join the children and come out to play.

This “coming out to play” may seem simple, but it is not easy. Simplicity is sometimes unbearable in the force of its truth. Make no mistake to come out and play with the world requires courage. The issue is not whether nations and peoples are ready, but whether you and I have the wisdom and courage to invest ourselves with children as a covenant of faith in the future. I cannot do this for you, only with you, for to do otherwise turns the visceral into the vicarious. Over the past thirty-five years I have encountered thousands of children who were ready to play in the face of their fears. I am asking the same of you, the reader. We each seek the experience of being alive before we die. The difficulty is that for us to find it, we must not be afraid of life. We must not abandon living just to stay alive. I’m not asking you for the courage to face death, that is not enough; you and I must reach more deeply for the courage to face life. Fortunately we have many courageous guides.

Bearers of Promise

Children know in their minds that all children are the same, all human beings are the same.
The Dalai Lama

One morning in the midst of a lecture to educators and social workers in Manila, The Philippines I heard the sounds of laughing and running children approaching the room. Eight children from a nearby squatter camp hurried into the room. The six young boys and girls and two teenage girls were brought to play with me as a demonstration for the adult professionals who observed our play from the safety of their chairs.

As the children entered the room I stopped talking and put mats down on the tile floor. The children gathered around the edge of the mats.  Their anxious smiles and excited bodies anticipated what was coming. The fact that we did not speak each other’s language wasn’t important.
I began to crawl toward the children. They squealed and ran around the mats. Some snuck around behind me, touched my back, and scampered away laughing as I lunged toward them. Before long their tentative touch evolved into jumping on my back and running into my arms. Soon all of the younger children and one of the teenagers were on the mat playing with me. One of the teenage girls smiled shyly, but stood back away from our playground. The older girl who was playing reached out to her hesitant friend with the invitation, “Come it’s OK. He’s human too.”

Some months later I walked out and sat in the playground of a school in Athlone, a township near Cape Town, South Africa. Curious and excited the young children ran up and surrounded me. From the back of the group the smallest boy squirmed through the others until he crawled into my lap. He seemed to be three or four years old. He reached out and wrapped his tiny arms around me as far as they would go and held me tightly. We didn’t talk. He just snuggled in close in the midst of the crowding, jostling, and laughing children. I encircled him with my arms so the excited rush of other children wouldn’t hurt him.  When the bell signaled the children to line up to go back into the school the little boy continued hugging me. After a few moments he got up, waved, and walked toward the school.

When I returned to the school a teacher who observed us through the windows asked if I knew anything about the little boy in my lap. I replied that I knew nothing about him. She said that 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.

These two children, like all children, are messengers. They are who Elie Wiesel calls “bearer[s] of promise.”¹ What is the promise they bear? Their promise is peace. Here are a child and a teenager who have lived with neglect and violence. Yet, I felt from them no anger, fear, or revenge. These children, however, did not hide. They refused to give in to their suffering. They had not lost their reason for loving. 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. How different they are from their warring seniors. They were able to transcend their victimization not by revenge but by the sheer force of their loving. To them peace is neither an idea nor an ideal, but a living relationship expressed in their original play. They are messengers bringing a promise of forgiveness and peace created in a different state of consciousness than that which violates their humanity. Their lessons are simple, but very demanding. They demonstrate, in a way plain enough for any adult to see, that love, kindness, and peace are our only acceptable actions.


The Godsend Conspiracy

In their original play children conspire with Creation to see around the corners of life and to engage us in a model of peace accessible but hidden, suggested, but ignored. At such a moment one realizes that we can communicate in ways that are far more profound than through words. Whether we know it or not, and however far removed we imagine ourselves to be from wonder, we have deep down just such a feeling of belongng; held in trust at the source of our own childlikeness which enables us to share in the secret of being at its most wondrous.

Creation’s compact with childhood is described in Psalm 104, verse 2,3,4.

A child says:

I am His messenger sent to tell you the way to Him . . ..
If you respect me, and leave me as I am,
And do not seek to seize me with a full and selfish possession
Then I will bring you joy:
For I will remain what I am.

This Godsend Conspiracy is a kind of contract in the human spirit between Creation and children for the purpose of reinstating the original meaning of childhood into the direction and growth of human life and thereby fulfills childhood’s promise of peace.  The Godsend Conspiracy is experienced as an ecological wisdom, sentient kindness, and original play, which animate all life.  In it’s grace we share the rapture of being alive, that 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 sort of knows how one should relate spontaneously, without thinking, to every moment of life.

Katie is one such guide and mentor. Katie was a special needs playmate of mine in Southern California. One day when I arrived in the classroom Katie was wandering about, stopping momentarily to jump lightly up and down. She vigorously shook her hand in front of her face. She walked a few steps toward me and repeated her self-stimulating motions. She seemed disconnected from the other children and staff in the room. I said her name, got down on my hands and knees, and crawled towards her. She smiled, cocked her head, and sent me a delicate blue-eyed play-look which darted in like a hummingbird sucking nectar from a flower, hovered and darted away. Three year old Katie unselfconsciously opened her arms to embrace me as I crawled closer. We rolled over onto a blue and yellow mat. She sat on my tummy and bounced up and down. As I turned over she slid off and laughed We lie next to each other on our sides. Our faces were just a few inches away and our eyes gazed into each other. I quickly turned away with tears in my eyes. I thought to myself, I’ve just seen and touched a face of God. I couldn’t help but to look back at Katie. Like an arrow, a thought impaled my mind, I said to myself, “You know don’t you.”  She giggled a tiny bubble of laughter. It seemed as though she sent the arrow. “You know don’t you.” I repeated in my mind. Another bubble of laughter erupted from her. We rolled over and continued our play.

After we finished playing I walked her to her chair for a snack. Before I left she smiled at me and we hug. I feel like something very special had passed between us. Katie not only knew the questions that had been rummaging about in my mind like marbles in a tin can; she also knew how to share the answers with me.

Our moment is not available to scientific investigation, educational pedagogy, or psychological reasoning. Katie’s bubble of laughter is like a hot spring in my heart that bubbles out of my eyes as tears on the drive home.  On my drive home through the green fields of early Spring in Southern California Driving home I remember something Jung said about God. “’I cannot define for you what God is. I can only tell you that my work as a natural scientist has established empirically that the pattern which men call God exists in every man, and that this pattern has at its disposal the greatest transformative energies of life’”.&sup2

What happened?  I had seen a face of God. Should I say to her teacher that I just saw a face of God in Katie? No, that doesn’t seem possible.  What I decide to do is to write a letter to Katie’s parents and tell them of our experience. I sit down in my car and handwrite the note. I wait and give it to her mother as she arives to pick Katie up. The next day Katie’s Mother comes to pick up her daughter walks up to me and hugs me. With tears in her eyes she tells me that I am the first person, other than herself and her husband to really see


Katie’s giggle is an inkling of something deeper that cracks my ordinary world, something within that cannot be expressed in ordinary language. Her giggle is a spontaneous response, a dynamic, childlike, and immutable principle of playful experience. It is a wholehearted “Yes!” to a moment that reverberates through all existence. Such inklings are what St. Benedict termed lectio divina

, a spiritual reading done more with the heart than the head so that one’s whole being resonates.&sup3 The consciousness of life shimmers in Katie’s giggle. Her giggle is like the little spark described by St. Teresa of Avila,  “This little spark is the sign or the pledge God gives to this soul that He now chooses it for great things if it will prepare itself to receive them.  This spark is a great gift, much more so than I can express.”&sup4 It’s not that Katie knows more; it’s that she is more. Katie does not make herself one with God, she is God.  She has never been anything else.

Katie’s giggle is the sound of the first child in each of us who profanes the sacred belonging in order that the sacredness of the profane world might be revealed. Katie expresses a love affair with life that is indelibly imprinted in the human heart. What makes Katie so ordinary and special at the same time is that she is willing to come out to play and love, rather than retreat in fear and desperation. She does the one thing that most of us seek to avoid at all costs: to act wholeheartedly and put our entire bodies into a situation, and to refuse numbness and protection in favor of love and immediacy.

Katie is a co-conspirator with Creation. I have become a co-conspirator. The children and I made a bargain. Without words we agreed to believe in each other.  I had to return to the sacred, living world I knew as a child. By including me in their conspiracy children haven’t made my life easier; they’ve made it more holy—and that is more difficult. They do not offer me spiritual tranquilizers. They bring a vocation: to play in the world of contest and thereby touch the face of God in all life. They give me little of what I expect, but quite a bit of what proves later to be what I need. I had to believe in a sense of reality that was much larger, grander, and more enchanted than I imagined. The playful mind is life’s “common sense”.


Peace Is Child’s Play

Nelson Mandela wrote that, “In South Africa children must be able to play again.” &sup5 Why?  The reason children must be able to play again all over the world is that peace is child’s play.  In their original play children conspire with Creation to engage us in a model of peace accessible but hidden, suggested, but ignored.  This is the meaning for which we have been searching all along. Imagine, for example, a world with no winning or losing, no sides, no fault, no blame, no revenge, no self-defense, and no enemies. For some adults such a world seems downright boring; to many others this would be a fairy tale world. It was to me too. Such a world may seem unbelievable but children have shown me that it is not unlivable. With such a new understanding dismissing children to “go out and play” takes on a profoundly new meaning. 

A number of years ago i received the following note from an Hispanic teenager in an East Los Angeles school. Jose wrote it to me after our first play session.

To: Fred (the wrestler)

From: Jose

The next time you come ask for Jose. So I can wrestle you one on one. Just don’t hurt me.  Let me hurt you. Just playing. Be careful with the bears and wolves.

Jose was the smallest of a group of eight young teenagers in an East Los Angeles middle school. These boys went to school but hung out in their counselor’s office almost every day. One day in June the counselor called me and asked if I’d come and play with them. I went for three hours every Friday for ten weeks. Jose was the first to play with me When his counselor called me to read his note she shared that she had also called Jose because he had stopped coming to her office as often as he had been doing. Afraid that he was on the streets, she asked him where he was. He replied, “In class.” Stunned she asked, “What are you doing there?” He said, “Well after listening to Fred talk about the wolves and playing with him I realized that I didn’t need to get into a contest with my teachers.” Jose took responsibility for his actions. Something he had not done before.

In one of our play sessions Jose stopped me and asked why we were playing. He asked me if I wanted him to get out of the gang and did I want him to put his gun down.

“Do you understand that everyone on my block is in the gang?”

“If I said yes, would you listen to me?”

He smiled his no.

“We’re playing to make you safer on the street.”

“How’s that?”

“When you walk down your street and feel unsafe what do you do?”

He reached behind his back and imitated pulling the gun he kept in his waistband. “ I pull it.”

“And then?”

“I shoot.”

“ At who?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“If you shoot a child or a mother, it’s OK?”

He shrugs his shoulders.

“This is why we’re playing. I stood up and centered myself. “Did you see it? When you walk down the street and feel unsafe you will move to your center rather than reach for your gun.”

“OK, I get it. Let’s play.”

At our ninth session Jose arrived very happy. He said, “I did it. I did it.”


“I put it down.”

Jose had put his gun down, not because I told him to. Which i never did. But because he felt that safety was a matter of heart not guns.

Next week I came into the counselor’s office and she was crying.  Jose wasn’t at school. She told me that in the previous week Jose’s mother remarried and her new husband gave her a choice—husband or Jose. She choose husband. This meant that Jose had to go to foster care. At that time in California because I was part of Jose’s life before foster care I could not be part of his life in foster care. We couldn’t have any contact with each other. The same was true for his counselor. She didn’t know where he was now going to school.

She asked, “Why do you do this? You know what the system does to these kids.”

“I know. But now Jose knows where real power comes from, his heart and not his gun. I can’t change Joses’s world but I can give him choices he didn’t know he had.”

This article began with the absurd idea that peace is child’s play. But is it so absurd? Despite all evasions, the faces of God stare one in the face. We do not need to understand, we must only look. There have been times when before my eyes the world changed and I saw the face of God in my playmates—in Lindsay, a blind girl with cerebral palsy, in the eye of Holly, a dolphin, in the blinding fierceness of Nala, a lioness, in the stunning gaze of a wolf named Sybil, in Katie’s soft smile, in Paul’s fierce courage, in Danny’s shimmering joy. When we see a face of God in someone we see him or her “through and through.” We see so deeply that we feel our belonging with them. These are experiences I cannot prove; I cannot even explain them. But everything I know as a human being tells me that they are real. I cannot fail to entertain a central thought: if ever we are to attain a final theory of life on earth we will have to see that we are all expressions of a deeper order of belonging. We know that, “the importance and efficacy of the attitude of lovingkindness toward other human beings has now been established from the scientific viewpoint.&sup6

My hope is kindled not by the wishful thinking of childish dreams, nor by science but by the fierce determination of children who have the courage to live the human dream of peace. Here are statements of five such children who confirm this dream. Anna, age 10 writes, “Play is being able to tell the world that you don’t like what it is doing to you, and not harming anyone while you do it.”  Elijah, age 6, asks his teacher, “Can we practice playing? Because if we practice we will get good at it and learn how not to hurt others and how not to get hurt .” After a play session with me an eight year old boy with autism comments, “I wish I had a normal life. I wish I had a normal life. [Sigh!] This play is my reminder of a normal life.” J.D., a four and a half year old boy in Head Start says following a play session, “Nothing can get better than this.”  Five year old Travis looks up at his mother during our play and smiles, “Look Mother, I’m falling in love.”

These children do not write from the perspective of one who dreams about something that will happen. They write from the experience of having lived what they write about, recognizable in their quality of aliveness. It is in their simple, earthy, pragmatic grace that we find original play.

I began life as a child in quest of a man and somewhere along the way I have become a man in search of a child. Some thirty years ago, I thought I was traveling from one point to another and I walked off the map encountering a whole new world and exploring a great mystery within my own spirit. Never has it been so important if I am not to fail in the purpose for which my life is created, to begin an ancient quest of seeking to reinterpret Creation’s message.  I often feel like the 17th. Century Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho who likened himself to “a travel-worn satchel,” a creased leathery bag of bones so thinned by heat, wind and rain that it tumbles along the roads as helplessly as the clouds scud across the sky.  The deepest pattern in life, unalterable and irrevocable, this adventure began in childhood, the way of first and last resort, when I am sure of nothing and curious about everything.

Behind it all is surely an idea so simple, so beautiful, so compelling that once seen we look at each other and wonder how could it have been otherwise and how did we miss it in the first place. To see a face of God is to see things as they really are. As always this new meaning has to be lived before it can be known. So here it is, irrevocable and unalterable—original play is a pact with Creation, a secret sympathy, hidden in the profusion and diversity of life, and so pledged to reproduce its underlying connective pattern, on however small a scale so that the original design is there for the spirit to discover and follow. Such is the preamble of life, a immutable provision of belonging that Creation is a play of immense diversity to which you and I and even the immense star spray we call the Milky Way bears witness.

Play as if life depends upon it—it does.

1. Wiesel, Elie. Children, 1990,p.27
2. van de Post,1982,p.351
3. Norris, 1996, p.xx
4. Kavanaugh & Rodriguez, 1976, p.141
5. Mandela, Nelson. Introduction. Paul Alberts. Some Evidence of Things Seen. Johannesburg: Open Hand Trust, 1997, p.19
6. The Dalai Lama. Quoted in Gentle Bridges. Jeremy Hayward & Francisco J. Varela (eds.) Boston: Shambhala, 1992, p. 254

I can’t believe people tie children up in bags to throw out with the trash. That is the single most heartbreaking thing I’ve read in a very long time.

This is the most moving and magical article! I’m sitting here in work trying not to just break down crying..  Wow..

Thanks so much for posting this. I’m forwarding the link.

Posted by Chandira  on  10/08  at  08:48 AM
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