John Hunter's fourth-graders are remarkably successful at resolving world crises peacefully.
Hunter, 57, has been teaching for more than three decades. He wanted to get his students to think about major world issues, so he invented the World Peace Game. Students are divided into countries, and then given a series of global crises — natural disasters, political conflicts — that they have to solve.
"Sometimes World Peace Game feels like, you know, the weight of the world on your shoulders: This is exploding over here, this is firing over there, this is spilling oil," 11-year-old Julianne Swope tells Hunter. "And I just look at the board and ... I say to myself, 'Oh my gosh, I need to fix this.' "
The former World Peace Game player says Hunter always told his class: "Know the consequences."
She says that principle should be applied in life as well.
Hunter says he hopes the game teaches students "how to make people not suffer so much."
"I think I now hope the game also helps people be more compassionate and kinder," he says.
Julianne says she has learned that lesson.
"That no matter where you're from, your background, you can still connect with someone else that you've never even met before," she says.
Irene Newman played the Hunter's game 10 years ago. She's now studying peace, war and defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"[In] third grade I thought I was going to be president of the United States," she tells Hunter.
Hunter remembers her pigtails, glasses and Brownie uniform.
"You were an intellectual, a third-grade intellectual," he says.
Newman was determined to win the game, and she thought her strategy would be to take everything over.
"I started on that path and quickly ran into a lot of problems," she says. "I really began to understand as we were playing the game, we found peace more through cooperation with one another."
On her 13th birthday, Newman received two pages of advice from Hunter. No. 22 on the list: "Most problems are actually pretty simple to solve. We superimpose so much on them that they become so complex."
That bit of advice, for Newman, makes her think that if elementary school children can solve certain issues, then maybe world problems are simpler than we make them out to be.
"Our world could be in a different situation than it is now," she says, if third- and fourth-graders were in charge.
"I'm almost afraid adults are playing the real world peace game, and we're not doing so well at it," Hunter says, "but third-graders and fourth-graders routinely fix everything and make everything world OK.
"If just one of them gets through — 10 years, 15 years later — they may save us all."
He's hoping Newman will be in that position one day.
Hunter is currently playing the game with fourth-graders at Agnor-Hurt Elementary School in Charlottesville, Va.
Audio Produced for Weekend Edition Sunday by Brian Reed and Katie Simon.