Conflict: Our Most Precious Resource




It’s always been interesting to me that conflict and play seem to go hand in hand. Wherever there is play, conflict usually emerges in some way, shape or form. Call me silly but I’ve learned to love it. The name calling, pushing, brawling, etc. all leave a bad taste in our mouths but there’s actually some really good stuff that goes along with it too.


Conflict can be a positive experience.  But we’ve got to take a trip back to the pre-school playground to grasp what’s really going on.




My daughter went to a play-based cooperative preschool. Most people understand that a “cooperative” type of preschool means that parents work at the school as part of the staff. Not many truly understand what is meant by “play-based”. At first glance, a play-based preschool is mayhem with a bunch of activity centers set up so that children might choose what they want to explore without a set curriculum being forced onto them.


Sounds pretty much like a hippie commune, doesn’t it?


One objection that inevitably arises at a play-based school is “the students aren’t learning anything so they won’t be prepared for Kindergarten”. While many preschools pride themselves on producing children that can recite and write their ABCs, count to ten in multiple languages, identify shapes and colors and perform some impressive advanced tasks for a 3 – 5 year-old, the play-based kids seem to be left behind. You can tell who they are when they get to Kindergarten because they never learned to march in line like the academically-advanced students.


Conflict is at the heart of every play-based school. Conflict is what drives the learning process. It is the curriculum. The activity centers are a conduit to bring students who are age-appropriately playing side-by-side into a soft collision with those around them. When these little worlds collide at a play-based center, students learn appropriate ways to express their emotions, avoid causing physical harm and negotiate a solution. How many adults can do that for themselves?


The basic premise behind a play-based pre-school is to give children the tools they need to resolve their own conflicts so that they can negotiate the Kindergarten and elementary school arena effectively. Once they have conflict resolution skills in their repertoire they can focus on abstract language and math concepts at a time when it is age-appropriate to do so. In contrast, children who have an academic head start will be floundering on the playground and the social arena because those concepts aren’t being taught and they never will be.


All too often, the only conflict resolution skills a student learns are when a playground supervisor has to break up a fight and then benches them or sends them to the principal’s office where they end up writing standards or are forced to apologize to someone they have no intention of helping to feel better.


Plenty has been written about the virtues of play-based learning. The scope of this piece is not about play-based learning but rather focusing on the virtues of conflict, which I consider to be a by-product of play.




A loose definition for play is “the opposite of work”. Work involves purpose and preparation, as does play but play goes a bit deeper. To achieve its purpose, improvisation is called upon. Play must involve improvisation.


Let’s take a football game as an example. The purpose of football is to get the ball into the end-zone. That is achieved by moving the ball down the field. The ball is moved down the field through a series of practiced and pre-determined actions. Much like a hammer hitting a nail, if executed properly, the effect is easy to predict. But, no matter how much a play is practiced, there are always extenuating circumstances that make the outcome of each action different. This is the point where improvisation enters the equation.


A receiver whose job it is to run a simple down and out pattern and look for the ball must also effectively get around his defender. This involves a series of moves that occur in the moment. These are things that can’t be pre-determined. The receiver needs to read his defender at that moment and decide what is going to trick him. This is the point at which the work of football turns into play.




Play can be found on a school campus at recess, a local park with playground equipment or an organized sports team. It can take place on a plot of grass in front of your own home or in a swank casino. It can be inside or outside; it doesn’t matter. Play could be in the form of an organized game or event such as a soccer match or a pick-up basketball game. It could also be improvised such as a tag type of game or play-acting superheroes. And since play is “the opposite of work” then you can also find play when people engage in a light-hearted conversation or discussion. There is no required equipment for play; anything or nothing at all can be used to incite a playful interaction.





As previously stated, I think of conflict as a by-product of play. Here’s why: Play involves a goal in mind such as “tag the guy” or “make a touchdown” or “throw the ball through the hoop” or “make someone understand my side of a story”. There always seems to be some challenge that must be overcome whether it’s chasing a fast runner, getting around a defender, aiming correctly at the hoop while being guarded by a tall guy or striving to relate to another. This is the conflict or the challenge. Overcoming that challenge involves trying different things that may or may not work. We call this improvising. In music when we improvise, we can hit the wrong note but sometimes, if we are practiced, we hit more right notes. In football, we get tackled but sometimes we gain a few yards and make a touchdown. In basketball, we get blocked or we make the shot. In discussion, our audience understands us or they don’t.




Every time we engage in play, conflict arises. When conflict arises, we must necessarily improvise, that is, use the practiced responses we have learned from experience to answer the challenge in front of us. If we know some basic maneuvers and practice them and learn more advanced maneuvers and practice them, we will have improved our chances of not falling into frustration. We thrive. The point is, we have a choice to either address a conflict with a practiced and polished response or we can get frustrated, give up and let it crush us.


Conflict presents an opportunity for growth. If we address conflict the right way, with an attitude of willingness and openness to learning, we thrive. Conflict can actually benefit us. It challenges us to be better. It proves to us that there is hope; there is usually a way to work around the problem. Finally, we feel engaged in life and empowered to create our own destiny. On the flip side, when we don’t view conflict as an opportunity and we run away from them, let them go unresolved or let others resolve them, we learn hopelessness, powerlessness, fear and become closed off to the possibilities around us. We put our destiny in the hands of others and blame them when things don’t go our way.




Handling conflict, resolving it to our liking, makes us feel good about ourselves.  For this reason alone, an efficient and effective model of conflict resolution that both empowers and validates conflicting parties to resolve their conflict in a manner that it doesn’t erupt again is necessary and prudent. Teaching conflict resolution in schools and on playgrounds will do much more than lower the reactivity of the student body during recess. It will help people at a young age internalize a coping mechanism that will serve them in their daily lives as they face tougher and tougher challenges.


Why aren’t our young people being offered something more substantial?


Are we really going to let our children grow up to learn advanced mathematical concepts, how to structure the perfect essay, become business professionals and enter into Ph.D. programs but never learn how to resolve their own conflicts in a satisfying way? These emotionally unaware adults will be ill-equipped to handle problems handed down from previous generations such as global climate change, international diplomacy issues, economic strife and dwindling natural resources. Our generation is doing all it can to kick the can down the road. The emotional awareness gained through the ability to resolve one’s own conflicts is worth investing a little extra time teaching conflict resolution (CR) techniques in the play spaces when and where the need arises.


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