Pushing for Peace: The T’ai Chi Peace Games

Issue37_Page_22_Image_0001By Marilyn Cooper

Marilyn Cooper, Kung Fu and Tai Chi Master, is the founder of the Pushing for Peace Games. Pushing for Peace workshops have been conducted in the United States and in Europe thus far, at mediation conferences, non-profit corporations, public and private schools, treatment centers for returning veterans with PTSD, universities , etc. Marilyn taught the Peace Games at this summer’s AMGK Education Conference in Sweden. If you would like her to teach Peace Games at your school or project, please contact her at:

Pushing for Peace is a program that teaches T’ai Chi movements and philosophy to prevent violence and increase mental and physical health. Practicing T’ai Chi causes a significant shift away from the bully/victim paradigm, and towards a mutually beneficial exchange. It provides an opportunity to play on a level playing field – a safe space where there are no winners and no losers, and everybody gains.

The Games are based on T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Qigong and Bagua. They were created over the past fifteen years in classes with Kindergartners through Seventh graders. I cannot say precisely who made up these Games, as they were the result of the ancients who developed the arts coming through me in relationship to these children.

The Games have become increasingly streamlined for the sake of quick take and ease of assimilation. No time is wasted and the basics are all covered: mental clarity, relaxation, the movement of energy, centering, grounding, sensitivity, compassion for others, respect, balance, awareness and focus. Each game delivers a subliminal, powerful message that goes into the mind, body and spirit of the player.

Origins of the Peace Games

In 1999, just after the Columbine massacre, a series of copycat threats to school buses were causing two hour delays for bomb sweeps. While driving my daughter to school, I realized the urgent need for T’ai Chi for youth, and began teaching my daughter and her classmates at St Paul’s Lutheran Academy in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. My first day teaching was a rude awakening. I couldn’t even get the students to line up and face me for warm-ups. Any hesitation on my part was an opportunity for them to talk out of turn, jump around aimlessly, or rough-house with each other. Traditional Chinese Kung Fu masters taught their art only to the most obedient and self-disciplined of students. My goal of peaceful, harmonious children through T’ai Chi was fading rapidly. I knew that I needed to create a seamless lesson plan that would eliminate the need for punitive, authoritarian discipline, which was not working anyway.

I quickly learned that different age groups required different programs. The four and five year olds became a separate a group I called Pre-T’ai Chi. The six to ten year olds could all understand and copy moves at about the same level, so they could be taught together. I spent the next three years struggling to motivate them to do something requiring self discipline and repetitious practice. Most kids don’t choose to learn any discipline. They just want to have fun.

How could I keep the kids’ attention long enough to give them the feeling of qi, let alone to grasp the T’ai Chi form? T’ai Chi’s healing powers are renowned for restoring the energy of youth to the elderly. Could this art conversely give the wisdom of elders to youth?

Instead of beginning class with warm-ups, I began with a short discussion of Chinese history and philosophy, paying close attention to when kids started to slump over their desks with eyes glazed over. Kids all love the T’ai Chi symbol, an empty circle called Wuji, or infinite emptiness, divided equally by the black Yin and white Yang. A discussion of opposites interacting, creating infinite flow in the universe would ensue. Sesame Street had prepared them all for shouting out opposites like black and white, high and low and mom and dad, the latter of which defined easily how the One splits into Two which gives rise to 10,000 things. The youngest of students easily grasped concepts that had taken lots of books and years of study on my part.

After Many Failed Experiments, Triumphant Successes

One of the most beneficial aspects of T’ai Chi is the notion that Loss is gain. Interpreted many ways, it means that experience is the best teacher and that you learn from your mistakes. In purely T’ai Chi terms, it means that when you lose space to your opponent, you gain knowledge of his or her position.

All the kids loved to describe the movements and warm-ups with imagery relevant to them. Repulse the Monkey was renamed Serve the Pizza, and Play the Pipa was dubbed Play the Bass. They thought arm swings were like the rotating action of the washing machine; with the waist rotations, we tried to stretch our tummies to be as fat as Santa Claus.
Qigong meditation was easy to make into a game. Kids live in their imaginations anyway. The ideas suggested to them when they were lying on the floor in winter or on rainy days (well distanced from each other!), or outside seated on benches, or tree stumps on outdoor days were really taken to heart. I could feel a collective sigh of relief when they were given permission to go to the place in their heads where they already were anyway.

Later in the year, the bigger kids began to mentor littler ones, like mini-masters and disciples, and this was only after they began to grasp T’ai Chi and had something real to teach. Instead of bullying and ostracizing the smaller, younger kids, the big kids were now taking them under their wings. They actually began to adopt certain ones with whom they had positive chemistry, which was a huge validation and a milestone in the program. It showed me that bullying could be transformed into compassionate engagement with the right factors at play-guidance from a caring teacher who knew what she was doing.

I taught the kids how to hold their ground by relaxing, sinking and connecting with gravity. They loved being able to hold off an adult three times their body weight. Pushing on a willing adult with all their might was another rare pleasure. Suddenly the forms took on real relevance.

Kids would line up for a chance to play push hands with me. They would have blissed-out expressions on their faces, otherwise seen only during the first lick of an ice cream cone on a hot June day.

Peace Games Today

I was not to see these Peace Games come to fruition for another ten years, in the San Francisco Bay Area of Northern California, where Asian culture and the T’ai Chi community are both firmly entrenched. Ten years is barely anything in T’ai Chi years and the Peace Games have evolved.

Learning made fun is the new paradigm. Information that is useful for not getting knocked down in the playground, or for how to feel calm was really appreciated. Unlike the fear-based construct in which bad grades branded the student a failure, the students begged to get tested! They loved the method of somatic learning of T’ai Chi and the retraining of responses to stress because it was relevant to their daily lives.

The Peace Games expose kids to the profound ideas and feelings in T’ai Chi, teaching ways to be more in touch with universality; their own nature and other peoples’. Like T’ai Chi form, the people who play the Peace Games report feeling calmer, more centered and grounded and a significant increase in feelings of well-being. The energy is created by using the mind and body together, and then sharing that heightened awareness with others. Each and every student experiences owning their own space while respecting the space of others!

Below are the nine Peace Games with an explanation of each, and their benefits.

1) Be The Chair – Seated meditation clears the mind. Students will have better focus after processing their mental chatter in stillness. A straight back while poised on the edge of the chair, as if sit bones are the feet during standing, is essential. The crown point must be lifted and the shoulders relaxed. Students are guided to listen to their thoughts without hanging on to them or judging them. “Be the Chair” begins the whole games series with the notion that the mind is in control.

Issue37_Page_23_Image_00012) Operator is based on standing in Wuji, (infinite emptiness), and on the idea of listening to energy. Students form a circle with the teacher, measuring the distance between each other by making the arms form the letter “V.” Lightly touching the centers of each others’ palms, with one side up and one side down, the teacher gives a gentle push to the student’s palm they are touching while looking directly at it. Students follow gentle pressure from palm to palm around the circle till it returns to the point of origin. Make sure the eyes follow the hands. Teacher can follow the movement and see where it gets stuck, wherever a student is distracted and not paying attention. The same movement is done with eyes closed. This develops sensitivity to others and awareness of the feeling of energy. As guide, the instructor can keep her or his eyes open to notice when one or another student is out of it by their posture and gaze. They might be fidgeting or looking around the room. Inevitably, the movement will get stuck with them not paying attention. The whole group will pressure them to pay attention so the energy doesn’t get stuck and they can go on with other games. We always start over until everyone passes the energy. This sends a message of the importance of participation and engagement to any process. It also gives the feeling of the importance of community.

3) Turtle Races are based on the T’ai Chi core principal of slowness. Moving slowly develops self-control. Competing to be last gives students a new perspective on the rush to win and beat others. Three qualities are: Slow, Big, Quiet. A few supplemental rules for the students who try to find tricks to win: Keep moving forward. No diagonal movement. Stay on your feet and don’t touch the floor. Give accolades for creativity, focus, and adhering to rules and principles. The obvious message from this games is that rushing doesn’t mean winning and slow and steady wins the race.

Issue37_Page_24_Image_00014) Follow the Leader, Lead the Follower teaches the principles in T’ai Chi known as listening and sticking. Students will instinctively assume a posture that is loose, but resilient, poised and flowing, as they lead and follow each other. The postural alignment taken instinctively while listening and adhering is known as Peng. Students should stay connected at the backs of their wrists (left to left and right to right). The two students mutually decide who leads first. After a few minutes, they switch roles. Finally, the whole exercise is done with eyes closed. The other students stand along the walls or chairs and tell the principal players if they are getting too close. Lead the Follower teaches that in order to be good leader, you must be able to follow. It also teaches sensitivity, awareness and to neither anticipate or initiate, but rather to wait until you feel real motion.

Issue37_Page_24_Image_00025) Sword Fingers teaches students to turn the waist to deflect force, to use the whole body moving in concert rather than standing in place and arm wrestling. One student points to the other with the pointer and middle finger with the arm out-stretched. Sword Fingers also teaches how to change direction from backwards/evading to forwards/attacking in one step. The hand must change (from sword fingers to open palm) when the advance turns into the retreat. Sword-fingers often gets students running, and is best done in a large, open space. This game is most like Shaolin and helps students dissipate excess energy. They must use their minds and their bodies. The familiar skill of running must integrate with the fine motor skill of changing the hand position: shield for retreat, sword fingers for advance.

6) Glider, done with eyes open and eyes closed, teaches how to move smoothly with weight sunk, to not grip, but only touch the opponent lightly on the elbow, and to breathe with the movements. This game increase sensitivity, awareness, balance, relaxation, and lowers blood pressure. Partners’ heartbeats and breaths become synchronized. Students gain compassion and awareness of others from “Glider.”

7) Full Moon/Empty Moon is the circular movement that Push Hand players do to sink and shift the weight, move the waist and hips, relax, and use no strength – just empty force that connects to gravity and the partner’s movement. Students maintain constant contact as they touch each other’s wrists and elbows, shift weight and turn their waists. Single and double-handed with the same leg/waist movement are both done. This has the same effect as “Glider” with the additional somatic message that you can let aggression pass by you without feeling compromised by listening to it, taking it in and guiding it past, almost like “turning the other cheek!”

Issue37_Page_24_Image_00038) Push the Turtle/ Don’t Break the Chain is the U-Turn step from Bagua done with a push on a rounded (turtle shell) back. The contact is constant, with palms on the back and rolling in the turn on the arms. This can only be accomplished by keeping the arms rounded. When done with a whole group, make sure each student goes the way they are pushed in the turn. The subliminal message in “Push the Turtle” is a profound one for youth. When you are being pushed in a certain direction, the way the whole crowd is going, you can, at will, turn around and go in an entirely different direction, and in fact, change the direction of the whole group!

9) Dog Chases its Tail is Dragon Palm Circle Walking from Bagua done with a partner, and then with the whole group. Students simultaneously chase and are chased by one another. For this reason, students sometimes call it “Prey on Predator” or “Hunt the Hunter.” The Leader calls for a change in direction from clockwise to counterclockwise with a UTurn step and a turning of the palms. This game is very intense and stimulating — a good way to generate lots of focused energy. It is important to not run because the abrupt change in direction can hurt the knees. Stepping should be controlled and steady. A music stand (or flag pole, broom, mop, etc …) in the center of the circle helps keeps the eyes focused and the waist turned toward center. Sometimes adults can’t do this, but I have yet to see someone young lose balance or become too dizzy. The message in this game is much the same as in “Push the Turtle.”