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South African Journal of Education

On-line version ISSN 2076-3433
Print version ISSN 0256-0100

S. Afr. j. educ. vol.29 n.1 Pretoria Feb. 2009


The value of play for conflict management: a case study



Lyn SnodgrassI; Richard BluntII

ILyn Snodgrass is Programme Leader of the Conflict Transformation and Management Programme in the Department of Political and Governmental Studies at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. Her specialisation areas include transformation of deep-rooted and protracted conflict, with the  emphasis on Africa, and techniques of negotiation and mediation to achieve resolution
IIRichard Blunt is Director of Faculty Development at St. George's University in Grenada, West Indies. He was previously Acting Director of the Centre for Organisational and Academic Development, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. He remains a Research Associate with the NMMU Faculty of Education




This is a case study of a conflict management intervention in two secondary schools in post-apartheid South Africa. The feature of the intervention that we examine is the use of play as an educational strategy. The literature attests that play can facilitate change by allowing learners freedom to change their behaviour and opportunities to explore their new identities. The context of the case revealed that conflicts had become deeply entrenched over time. The literature on conflict management suggests that such situations can change if approached in the right way. In the article we describe the intervention and evaluate it with the help of feedback received from participants and facilitators. In the evaluation we found that the participants were able to overcome prejudices and develop democratic approaches to conflict. The evaluation was repeated several months later, when it was found that the benefits of the workshop had been maintained, with the result that the participants were engaging in healthier relationships.

Key words: communication; conflict management; diversity; elicitive training; games; multicultural; play; problem-solving; role play; secondary schools




This is a case study of the educational value of games that were used during interventions to resolve conflict in two South African schools. We define games as facilitated activities that reduce the inhibitions and increase the cohesion among members of a group of learners. Conflict in urban schools exists in many if not all countries, so we believe this case study will interest teachers both within and beyond the borders of South Africa. In addition to the outcomes of the interventions, we argue that play provides an appropriate strategy for facilitating conflict management in schools.

Conflict in schools has become synonymous with overt behaviours involving coercion, violence and aggression, but conflict may also manifest covertly and subtly. Covert or latent conflict is often misread. Although undetected, it can be just as insidious and destructive as overt expressions. In the schools described in this study, teachers spent a disproportionate amount of time and energy trying to manage classroom conflicts and disputes that arose with administrators, other teachers and parents. Together these conflicts contributed to dysfunctional relationships, which became an obstacle to establishing a dynamic culture of teaching and learning (Nelson-Hayes, 1995; Vogel, Seaberry, Barnes & Kelley, 2003).

The shift to a multicultural education system means that learners from divergent cultures are in a position to benefit from contact with one another (Banks, 1999; Gumbo, 2001). Because contact between divergent cultures may entail conflict, South African educators have stressed the need to empower principals, teachers, learners and parents with the values, attitudes, knowledge and skills to manage conflict in a constructive manner. However, teachers receive little practical training in how to deal with manifest and latent conflict. This disempowers them when they encounter conflict, and consequently they may react defensively, thereby exacerbating the conflict.

Unmanaged conflict can create dysfunctional schools, which deprive learners of their right to citizenship through free and equal education. These rights — and the ethical responsibility of teachers and learners to strive for their realization — are enshrined in the South African Constitution (1996, Founding Provisions), which states at the outset that all citizens are, "equally entitled to the rights, privileges and benefits of citizenship; and equally subject to the duties and responsibilities of citizenship." Citizenship rests on the underpinning values of the Constitution, namely, "Human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms," and "Non-racialism and non-sexism". These values cannot be realized in contexts where conflict is endemic.

A review of the literature in South Africa reveals that relatively little conflict management and peace education are taught in schools. When provided, these programmes are presented by the staff of non-governmental organizations, educators, social workers, psychologists, community development practitioners and independent consultants working with institutions, organizations and communities. The programmes are loosely based on western models of conflict resolution because the field of conflict resolution has largely developed within a framework of western (Euro-American) intellectual traditions involving the expectations, values and rationality that are embedded in western culture (Lederach 1995; 2000). Our viewpoint is that these traditions are not necessarily appropriate for South African learners engaged in conflict, so it is important to ensure that any intervention is learner- centred. The use of play empowers learners to take responsibility for their ideas, attitudes and behaviours, and to transform their identities to reflect the qualities of democratic citizenship.

It was against this broad context that research into school-based conflict management was conducted in two multicultural secondary high schools in the Nelson Mandela metropole. The case study explored the nature of conflict in multicultural secondary school settings and which programmes were needed to address the conflict in these settings.


Literature review

The purpose of this review is to provide two theoretical bases: one for the approach taken to conflict management in the intervention, and the other for the role of play in facilitating learning. Both themes are extensively represented in the literature, so this review is a selection of basic references pertinent to the study.

Lederach (1995) identifies two models that are used to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary for managing conflict. The first is the "prescriptive approach" to training, which holds that the trainer is an "expert" who knows what the participants need. The trainer's knowledge is then seen as a resource to be transferred, and is provided to the participants as a model made up of strategies suggesting how "conflict is resolved". Learning and mastering the model is the primary goal of the training (Lederach 1995:48- 53). A criticism of the prescriptive approach, and an important consideration in this study, is that the cultural and ideological underpinnings of the training model are rarely made explicit, and facilitators may even deliberately "bracket" them as off-limits if they fear that they may disrupt instruction.

The second model is the "elicitive approach", which builds on the knowledge in the setting. Unlike the prescriptive approach, it cannot bracket culture: "Culture, in other words, natural and taken for granted knowledge in a given setting, is understood as the foundation and seedbed of model development and creation" (Lederach, 1995:62). Rather than depending on the trainer as expert, this approach to training creates a facilitated learning environment. The relationship between participants and trainers redefines knowledge as implicit in the setting rather than in the trainer.

The intervention team recognized that it was imperative to incorporate culture into the conflict training because violent incidents between ethnic groups, coupled with avoidance behaviour, strongly suggested that learners were prejudiced against one another's cultures. In order to develop the shared understanding of the groups it was necessary to follow the prescriptive approach at the outset, but in the remainder of the project the team gave greater emphasis to the elicitive approach.

The first question that is asked when conflicts occur is why? Deutsch (1969; 1973) argues that conflict exists among individuals and groups when incompatible activities occur. This insight reveals that those on different sides of a conflict need to first recognize that a conflict exists, and second, understand how their perspective is incompatible with the other(s). This intervention revealed that teachers and learners tended to associate conflict only with extreme acts of physical violence and danger. In this way, they avoided dealing with covert conflict. Therefore, they needed to learn that conflict can be both overt and covert, and that the goal of conflict management is not to eliminate conflict, but rather to learn to recognize and accept it as part of life with constructive and destructive outcomes.

With respect to incompatible activities, Vogel et al. (2003:27) observe that, in multicultural school settings, barriers often emerge between learners when variations in language, ethnicity or culture, social class, gender and personal and social differences became part of interactions and infiltrated relationships. Their observation was borne out in the schools in this study, where barriers created by language, race and ethnicity had become objects of both verbal and physical violence.

In the elicitive approach, learners take responsibility for solving their own conflicts. Heydenberk and Heydenberk (2000:10) propose that conflict resolution and critical-thinking are "related and complementary" and that "problem- solving, critical thinking skills and conflict resolution skills ¼ [occupy] different places on a continuum". They add that "perspective-taking abilities; listening and comprehension [and] divergent thinking abilities" are all skills that learners need if they are to learn conflict resolution. This is especially true when they encounter different values that are often the source of conflicts. Schulze (2003:6) also observes that, in a post-apartheid environment, "critical thinking, rational thought and deeper understanding [are] seen as ways to break down class, race and gender stereotypes".

Attitude changes are often superficial and temporary. The challenge for conflict management is to find an approach that will produce enduring change. The literature suggests that changes of identity are forged by meaningful experiences. Kolb (1984:38) defines experiential learning as a process whereby knowledge is created through the transformative power of experience. Similarly, Marsick and Sauquet (2000:384) regard experience as the most effective way to change beliefs and behaviours. They explain that learning takes place as "people interpret and reinterpret their experience in light of a growing, cumulative set of insights and then revise their actions to meet their goals".

Based on these insights from the literature, the teachers and learners had first to be aware of the behaviours that were encountered in conflict situations, such as aggression, avoidance and constructive problem-solving. They needed to understand the reasons they chose particular strategies for managing conflict. Central to the concept of choosing a strategy is communication. The role of violent and racist communication in sustaining and perpetuating destructive conflicts was a source of anxiety to teachers and learners alike. Consequently, the team introduced the notion of diversity, in which differences between people can be seen as positive and complementary rather than as problematic or threatening.

The perspective of diversity frames conflict management as a process of contextualized discovery and individualization. Unlike multicultural workshops, which draw generalizations about different "groups" in society, our approach based on play provided opportunities for the participants to discover information about each another as individuals, without forming generalizations about groups that may lead to prejudices (Jacob, 1995:452-453). Besides managing the activity, the role of the facilitators in the games and other activities was to model non-judgmental acceptance and recognition of participants.

Underpinning the concept of games is the notion of "play". Many educational innovators have focused on elements of play, such as learning from nature (Rousseau, 1763), problem-solving (Dewey, 1910; Conant, 1951), play therapy (Axline, 1947), discovery learning (Bruner, 1959) and experiential learning (Kolb, 1984). We use the term "game" in an educational sense to mean facilitated activities with indirect educational goals, which challenge learners to exercise their ingenuity (self-direction) within constraints (rules).

A key condition of successful play is that the players experience enjoyment and intrinsic motivation to achieve a goal (e.g. mastering a challenge, winning a contest, solving a problem, achieving a high score, etc.). In education, play is used to facilitate indirect learning, allowing learners freedom of choice and creating an element of risk — the sense that they may fail. Without risk, the game becomes pedantic and banal. The element of risk makes it possible for learners to take control of the activity and choose their own ideas, attitudes and behaviours. The risk introduced by a facilitated game differs from the challenges presented by a prescriptive approach. Prescription imposes the instructor as an authority, thereby introducing the possibility of resistance and interference.

Dewey (1910) argues in favour of the transformative power of play. He recognizes that it can be harmful if not properly managed. However, he defends play as a means of achieving social, moral and educational ends, and he associates it with work: Dewey decided simply to redefine work to mean something more like play, that is, voluntary, spontaneous, authentic and purposeful. As he put it regarding his description of work activities, "The dictionary does not permit us to call such activities work". His view of work then, is that it is play, except it seems to be more social, purposeful, and utilitarian. He calls other types of work that are not intrinsically motivated drudgery, toil, or labour" (Makedon, 1991:6).

Bruner (1959) argues that the ability to extrapolate — to go beyond the information given — has an important role for logical problem solving, inquiry, imagination, discovery and motivation. By allowing children the freedom to search and discover for themselves in a playful way, their potential as learners can be realized (Anglin, 1973). Subsequent educational innovations based on play have recognized the same value, that a "playful" approach allows children space to develop technical and practical ability together with empowering attitudes towards learning.

The intervention team chose games that involved song, dance, movement and emotional expression. These helped to build an atmosphere of freedom and fun which, according to Glasser (1986; 1992), is part of our essential needs as human beings. Deutsch and Coleman (2000:356) cite Gruber who points out that the "play ethic" permits people to engage in fantasy and allows "fun, humour and relaxation of internal censors that inhibit expression of challenging, unconventional, far out ideas". Individuals who have the play ethic are apt to "discover novel solutions to the problems and conflicts they face".

Based on this support in the literature, it is possible to evaluate the effectiveness of the intervention described here.


Research method

The approach to the research was qualitative, reflecting the phenomenological perspective which, "¼ views human behaviour, what people say and do, as a product of how people understand the world" (Taylor & Bogdan, 1998:10). This is a social constructivist perspective, emphasizing the role of interpretation in the way people constitute their reality (Berger & Luckman, 1967). A constructivist approach which has been important for conflict management is symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1969). This posits that people construct their beliefs about the world from social interaction modified by interpretation, and these beliefs constitute the basis for their actions. The significance of this perspective for conflict management is that conflict is seen to reside in the mind of the person who perceives it, rather than in the person who is believed to have caused it. Therefore, to manage conflict one needs to work with the perceptions of those who experience the conflict.

In qualitative research, data are gathered from the natural setting, and the researcher interviews and observes the participants in their own environments (Denzin & Lincoln ,1994:4). Data about how the participants constitute their worlds is collected through sustained contact with people in settings where people spend their time (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992:3). The leader of the intervention team (LS) spent considerable time over a three-year period in the settings of the two secondary schools chosen for this case study. Initially, her contact was with the teachers who shared their perceptions of the situation with her.

The team decided to use an eclectic model for training, with elements of both the prescriptive and elicitive approaches. The eclectic model provided the research team with scope to use the strengths of both approaches. One of the strengths of the elicitive approach is that it incorporates feedback loops using questionnaires, focus group interviews, and reflective reports, which can be employed to develop cycles of action research.

Data were collected through these methods, and for the purposes of this research the information relevant for learning through play was analysed. Individual face-to-face interviews were conducted six months after the training because the research team wanted to investigate whether the initial responses to the training, and the positive interactions which had been observed, were sustained. The team conducted 70 interviews of approximately 15 minutes each using a semi-structured format. The interviews were recorded, transcribed and coded. The themes and sub-themes which emerged from the data for both schools are presented in Table 3.


The intervention

During the planning phase, the leader identified five aims and corresponding objectives for the intervention based on the literature study. Table 1 provides a summary of the aims, and the knowledge and skills objectives for the conflict management training. The goal of the training process was to empower the participants to perceive conflict and conflict management as positive, constructive processes.

The intervention team (hereafter "the team") comprised a lecturer (the leader) and several graduate students from the Conflict Transformation and Management Programme at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. The team met one group of learners from each school (separately). The learners were identified earlier by their teachers as school leaders, and they consented to participate. A teacher accompanied and managed each group.

The group in School A consisted of 40 pupil leaders including approximately equal numbers of "black" and "coloured" learners. School B consisted of 38 pupil leaders and had approximately equal numbers of "black" and "Indian" learners, and eight "coloured" learners. (We use the apartheid "race" classifications to indicate the diversity of the groups. In no way do we subscribe to their artificial distinctions.) They were all in Grade 12, ranged from 17 to 19 years of age, and included approximately equal numbers of boys and girls. The aim of the preliminary activities was to establish a climate of positive interaction and productive activity that engaged their energy and enthusiasm.

In each of the two schools, the opening session aimed to establish an atmosphere of trust and safety so that the participatory process of joint exploration, learning, and experimenting could begin. An overview of the purpose, process and the outcome of the program was presented; the learners, teachers and team were introduced; and ground rules were agreed for cultivating a safe and respectful training environment. The processes and outcomes of the sessions in the two schools were so similar that they will be reported as one.

The team used games and activities (energizers) to help increase co-operative participation. Then the concepts of conflict and violence were explored. Instead of starting with a definition of conflict, participants listed everyday words and phrases synonymous or closely related to conflict. They revealed a negative bias, and their perceptions of conflict involved anger, hostility and violence. They were then asked to identify positive outcomes that can emerge from constructively managed conflict.

Participants were then divided into groups of six and asked to identify, script and enact a conflict situation that they had experienced. To provide a guide, the following relationships were suggested: conflicts between parent/ child, girlfriend/boyfriend, teacher/learner, learner/learner and pupil leader/ learner. Participants were free to choose their groups and it was noticed that they divided along ethnic lines.

Role-plays and simulations form an essential part of conflict management training (Lederach, 2000; Lupton-Smith, Carruthers, Flythe, Goettee & Modest, 1996; Kimmel, 2000). They enable learners to practice given skills or techniques, learn the steps in a model, or work on specific conflict situations which involve skills such as negotiation and mediation. In the elicitive approach, the use of role-play is a means for model discovery and creation rather than for practising a given model. This means that elicitive facilitators structure role-plays loosely, trusting the participants' creative abilities to identify and create their own scenarios.

Five steps were used to analyse the role plays: discover, categorize, describe, evaluate and adapt/create. The discovery process aimed to induce participants to engage with their understanding of how conflict occurred. Each enacted scenario was opened for facilitated group discussion, and "insider" knowledge of the participants was clarified in relation to the "outsider" professional knowledge of the facilitator. Conflict situations were categorized and described by the whole group. Participants were asked to evaluate them and generate alternative solutions. This required participants to create more effective ways of dealing with conflict. Using role play, learners could then experiment with how they could approach these conflicts.


Evaluations of the interventions

The data collected for the evaluation of the training sessions comprised the reports of the facilitators, notes from the research team meetings and debriefings, and the participants' responses to the training evaluation questionnaire. Data were analysed using the inductive approach by which patterns, themes and categories emerge from the data rather than being developed prior to collection. One of the findings that emerged from the analysis of the data was that there were no noteworthy differences in the participants' responses to the evaluation questionnaire between the two schools. They are therefore presented together. Table 2 outlines the participants' responses to the questionnaire.                                                                                                                            

As can be seen from the evaluations, the learners rated the games highly for enjoyment. Initially, the games were introduced to add an element of fun to the group sessions and helped to ‘break the ice'. However, it quickly became apparent that they contributed to the impact of the training (as described by the participants in Table 2).


The following quotations are examples of the learners' open responses to the questionnaire:

I enjoyed the activities that we did because even though they seemed playful, they taught me a whole lot about communication and teamwork ¼ our leaders made us at ease and comfortable around them, they made learning fun.

o The made me challenge myself into doing things I never had done before like the part we had to put our trust in our team mates.

o I enjoyed everything including the games. Everything means I was able to learn something without being serious but having fun.

The research team realized that the games (energizers) were more than just a "fun" element. They became an essential aspect of the training. Observations of the sessions revealed that the games provided co-operative activities, which led to positive interpersonal communication. The team realized how they could introduce conflict management training into the games and, with facilitation, provide important learning opportunities.

The following are excerpts from the facilitators' reports:

o The transformational influence of the games was two-fold: the games allowed the youth to communicate in different ways than their normal communication patterns with one another, giving them a sense of freedom; and the egalitarian facilitation approach of the research team transformed the social environment.

o The legacy of structural conflict in the school environment profoundly affected communication and relationships between learners of different ethnic groups. The use of games transformed the interpersonal conflicts in the group through opportunities for communication, the formation of trust, and the building of relationships.

o This activity became a tool for processing issues around diversity in small groups. The value of the activity was not in the dividing of the group, but rather in the discussion of diversity issues following the activity.

Role-plays were central to the learning that was elicited during the conflict management training. They were plays, and they became like complex games. The enactments were lively, physical and sometimes boisterous, producing considerable laughter and even expressions of deep emotion. Participants in both schools clearly enjoyed the freedom to express themselves and create their own "realities" of what they knew about their environment, their relationships and how things worked. By allowing participants to develop their own role-plays, the team was of the opinion that the learners were encouraged to develop a sense of autonomy and ownership. A facilitator commented:

o This method of using role-plays is essential to conducting research with youth in the area of conflict because it allows the youth to define what conflict looks like to them; allows the youth to learn about conflict from one another; and has the potential to break down walls between the groups.

The aims and objectives described in Table 1 were incorporated into the training through the role-plays, games, energizers and the facilitated group discussions. These objectives were also reflected in the participants' evaluations of the lessons learnt during the training, as presented in Table 2. The following comments from the participants' evaluations indicate that they had achieved the aims of understanding conflict, improving communication skills, appreciating diversity, and managing conflict through problem solving:

o We must understand that we all have different views and we all should work on finding solutions to our problems.

o I learnt that communication is the key that conflicts are good or bad, I saw conflicts as bad but now I have another better view on conflict.

o I learnt how to handle situations and being responsible and how to solve problems. I also learnt to trust the other person.

Six months later, the participants recalled their experiences of the workshops in brief (15 minute) interviews, and their responses are summarized in Table 3.

The findings of the interviews reinforced the participants' earlier evaluations. When asked to explain further, participants spoke about the opportunity to interact with other cultural groups. They said the training had profoundly affected these relationships and, for many of them, this was the first time they had interacted with a person from another cultural group. The majority of these "new" relationships were still intact up to six months after the training. In School A, two incidents of interracial dating had taken place and multiracial groups of friends had formed. These friendships had extended beyond the school environment and participants had shared time together socially and at one another's homes.

Another important aspect of the learners' first memories of the training was the change in their understanding of conflict. Many spoke of the negative and positive aspects of conflict and how one could communicate openly and disagree, but still have constructive outcomes in these situations. The following are examples of first memories taken from the interviews:

o It was the first time out with my schoolmates and it really was great and the friendship has changed in the school, we are now greeting each other and we have some chat around the corner. It's really nice after all that happened when that guy who was stabbed here at the school and died ¼ he was a coloured. (School A)

o The games we played ¼ the [role] plays we did. Everything. I remember everything, and the game where we clapped our hands and the bingo game and the negative and positive conflict. (School B)

o Clapping games, having fun together, black and Indian people, it was the first time we got together. (School B)

o I feel more open, speak more, and view more opinions. All races we are closer... (School A)



The games (including role plays) emerged as powerful tools for creating a co-operative climate and providing important experiential learning opportunities for understanding the issues concerning conflict management. The games and role-play scenarios were the cornerstone of the experiential learning and stimulated creativity.

The participants' and facilitators' evaluations indicated the major role that play contributed to the process of developing skills for conflict management, and therefore for citizenship and lifeskills. Key learning outcomes had been achieved by allowing learners space to work out relationships for themselves in an informal, play environment. The most enduring impacts were the dissolution of ethnic barriers and an appreciation of the values of diversity. Besides these gains, participants reported that they had learned to: listen to and appreciate their peer's perspectives; identify things they shared in common with people whom they had thought different; communicate with people of other ethnic groups even in conflict situations; control their feelings and speech; appreciate the roles of conflict for life; help to transform conflict into productive, non-violent outcomes; appreciate the merits of both sides of arguments; and the joy of having and enjoying friends from other ethnic groups. These outcomes of the intervention are critical for citizenship, and they have both academic and vocational value.

For many learners, these outcomes profoundly transformed their lives, and the notion of play seems to have been the key to enabling them to find and understand one another. This intervention demonstrated to the youngsters that positive, enduring relationships could be cultivated even with people from whom initially they felt alienated, and that they were capable of managing conflict in ways that promoted meaningful outcomes.



The games and "energizers" incorporated into the training were introduced by Masters' students from the Conflict Transformation and Management Programme at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University who were part of the intervention team. These games emphasized co-operative group activities and problem-solving. The following are examples:

Co-operative Construction

Divide the class into smaller groups of three to six members. These groups must then ‘construct' or represent whatever the facilitator calls out, using only their bodies. The facilitator should prepare a list of objects or situations that can be acted out, e.g. taxi, orchestra, school, ocean.

Elephant and Giraffe

This activity requires learners to create elephants and giraffes with the learners around them. For example, they can make an elephant using one student to hold out her arm like a trunk, while the learners on either side use their arms to form large ears. A giraffe can be made by the centre student holding her arms straight above her head like a long neck while the two on either side form circles with their thumbs and fore-fingers and hold them up as spots. Observers can then ask them to "Stretch your neck" or "Flap your ears", depending on the animal chosen.



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