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The Development of Religious Tolerance: Co-operative Board Games with Children and Adolescents

by Minna Lehtonen[1], Department of Psychology, University of Bedfordshire


The aims of this cross-sectional explorative study were, firstly, to explore how developmental differences in religious identity are linked to tolerance, and secondly, to identify developmental differences in the ways children demonstrate tolerance in social interactions. The sample consisted of 15 primary school pupils aged 9 and 10, and 18 secondary school pupils aged 13 to 14. A religion-themed collaborative board game designed for the study was played by groups of three to five children who were observed and audio recorded. Transcripts of the conversations were analysed using qualitative content analysis and conversational analysis. The younger group expressed unquestioned beliefs in God and literal understandings of religious rules. Despite this, they demonstrated openness towards other perspectives and moral relativism. The adolescents' symbolic understanding of religion, loss of faith and critical thinking were linked to negative views towards religion and religious people. Traits of moral absolutism among adolescents were linked to lack of acceptance of difference. Regarding conversational behaviour, the reluctance to disagree and challenge others in the younger sample contrasted with more direct disagreements and compromises among the adolescents. Some of the findings suggest that self-presentation and difficulties in trusting others can pose challenges for the development of tolerance in adolescence.

Keywords: Tolerance, Religion, Identity, Development, Conversational analysis, Games.


"People can have their own opinions though, can't they?"

"Yeah, but like, it'll be better if they share like, their beliefs and stuff."

(Two girls aged 13 years)

Democratic principles demand that we live as equals and respect the rights of others to have different beliefs and customs. However, contrasting views about morality and different values and norms make religious tolerance hard to achieve in practice. Children today are living in a world of rapid change and are exposed to wider influences than their parents or grandparents. In schools children come across people from many different backgrounds and they need to learn the rules of procedural tolerance quickly. While it has been concluded that the basic rules of procedural tolerance are learned in early interactions with others (Vogt, 1997: 110-13), studies into the development of tolerance have rarely examined concrete social interactions.

The Development of Religious Identity

According to Fowler and Dell's (2006: 34-45) theory of stages of faith, children internalise religious norms and concepts from their social environment depending on their level of cognitive ability. Values important for the development of tolerance, such as equality, compassion and trust in others with different beliefs, are internalised in childhood. Conversely, fear and mistrust of difference will also be incorporated and become part of the child's religious identity. The literal understanding of religious mythology of early childhood develops into a symbolic understanding by late childhood. This stage of synthetic-conventional faith involves, according to Fowler, a conventional identification with one's own religious tradition. Later developments in adolescence can lead to the transcendence of one's own religious tradition. When the relativity of one's own religious beliefs is realized, religion loses some of its meaning and its myths become understood in more concrete terms; many people lose their religion at this stage. Adolescents are also faced with the challenge of exploring their possibilities and finding their role in society. According to Erikson (1968: 132), the identity confusion of this stage can cause adolescents to become cliquey and intolerant of difference to protect themselves against identity loss. Once finding and defending one's identity is no longer an issue, opening up to the views of others is possible again (Streib, 2001: 152-53).

High Modernity

The idea of having to find one's own identity and place in society is related to modernity. According to Giddens (1991: 194-95), in the world of high modernity religion has lost its place as a sole authority. Instead of authoritative world views such as religion being passed down from generation to generation, people need to engage in an ongoing process of creating their personal identities and meanings (Giddens, 1991: 32-33). Through globalisation, young people are exposed to an increased diversity of views and traditions. Sometimes, this leads them to extreme relativism, indifference and loss of meaning (Giddens, 1991: 201). To protect themselves, some may turn to the certainty of fundamentalism (Streib, 2001: 153-54; Giddens, 1991: 196). In others, the relativisation of religious identity can lead to what Schweitzer (2007: 89-100) calls the "individualised religion". This religious identity is custom made and does not fit into any of the traditional grand narratives of religion. However, its apparent tolerance and openness to different faiths is deceiving. As Schweitzer (2007: 92-95) found, individualised religion in adolescents was a thin motive for tolerance and mainly existed as a surface rhetoric. Likewise, Blommaert and Verschueren (1998: 91-94) found that homogeneity is still the ideal norm for society. Under the surface rhetoric of tolerance, only superficial forms of diversity such as dress, cuisine, music and language are accepted. Differences in more fundamental social norms are seen as intolerable and threatening to social order.

Cognitive and Social Development

Cognitive reasoning plays a part in the development of tolerance. According to developmental theories such as those of Piaget (Piaget and Weil, [1951]1995: 254-74) and Aboud (1988: 24-25) when young children are learning about social categories they accentuate the differences between social groups and view their own ethnic group more favourably than others. This preference seems to peak at around six or seven years of age and then eventually declines during middle childhood (Aboud, 1988: 43-44). Tolerance of difference according to this theory will increase after the preoccupation with social categories has lessened. According to Kohlberg (1984: 74-76), the ability for moral thinking develops as the ability to decentre and take the perspective of others grows. Stage five in his theory of the development of morality involves a general avoidance of the violation of rights of others. Respecting the rights of others in turn is essential for the development of political tolerance (Avery, Sullivan and Wood, 1997: 36-37; Sullivan and Transue, 1999: 633-34). More direct forms of tolerance may not require as advanced moral reasoning.

Social and emotional skills needed for successful social interaction and tolerance are learned through encounters with others throughout childhood (Schultz, Barr and Selman 2001: 7-9, 20-23). Moreover, peer interactions are vital for the development of skills such as co-operation and negotiation, since they involve more give and take than relationships with adults. As a result, children learn to move from pursuing purely self-interested goals and struggling for control to using more negotiation and collaborative strategies (Selman and Schultz, 1989: 388). These skills are important for tolerance, since self-control and social skill are needed when dealing with others who hold conflicting ideals and goals. Children learn how to get along with others who are different and the procedural rules of tolerance in equal encounters with others (Vogt, 1997: 113).

Group Games

The games children play were viewed by Piaget (1932: 1-2) as important in the development of morality. Games require that children follow rules, and they give children opportunities for exploring and understanding the reasons why they are followed. They foster the development of social competencies, since in order to play a game one needs to be able to co-ordinate one's own perspective with that of others, and find solutions that seem fair for everyone. Group games have the potential to teach children about procedural tolerance, which is needed in order to play them. Collaborative games, in particular, may be more beneficial in promoting tolerance than competitive ones which can sometimes increase dislike. Co-operative game interventions have been used to reduce aggressive behaviours in children (Bay-Hinitz, Peterson and Quilitch, 1994: 435-46). Working in a team together, instead of playing against each other, can increase group cohesion and promote mutual understanding. Social competencies may also be best developed in a co-operative environment that offers opportunities for dialogue and negotiation. For these reasons, collaborative group games seem ideal for teaching tolerance.

It can be concluded that emotional, social and cognitive developments are required for the development of tolerance (Vogt, 1997: 104-50; Kohlberg, 1984: 74-76) and that the development of religious identity poses challenges for the development of tolerance (Fowler, 2001: 169; Streib, 2001: 143-58; Schweitzer, 2007: 89-100). However, while tolerance occurs and is developed in everyday interactions, it has mainly been studied outside of the everyday context. Therefore, the current study aimed to explore the concrete ways in which children demonstrate tolerance in everyday interactions. Because of the potential of co-operative group games in promoting procedural tolerance, a collaborative religion themed-board game was used as a data collection tool.

The research questions were: How is the development of religious identity linked to tolerance? What developmental differences are there in the ways children demonstrate religious tolerance in their interactions?

Research Method


The research was designed to explore how children demonstrate tolerance in interactions with their peers. A collaborative religion-themed board game was designed for the study. It was aimed to promote tolerant behaviours, to facilitate children's discussion about their religious views and to allow observation of discursive behaviours associated with tolerance. In order to best explore the complexities of the interactions and developmental trends, this study was qualitative and cross-sectional in design.


The game designed for the study was a co-operative board game where the players play together against a monster and collect tokens in order to finish it successfully. The game includes 25 joint question cards and 15 individual question cards (see Appendix 1). The subjects of the questions range from religious beliefs to opinions about religious practices. Joint questions are answered together with another player and the players need to agree on the answer to earn a token. Players take turns to throw the dice in order to move on the board and must answer the questions that correspond to the space where they land.

Image 1: The collaborative board game used in the study (the children in the picture are unrelated to the study). (Author's own image.)

Image 1. The collaborative board game used in the study (the children in the picture are unrelated to the study). (Author's own image.)


The participants were pupils from one primary and one secondary school in Bedfordshire, England. Both schools were urban, mixed, state-run and non-denominational schools. The primary school participants consisted of 15 children aged 9 to 10 years (eight girls and seven boys). The group from the secondary school was composed of 18 children aged 13 to 14 years (seven girls and eleven boys). The religious background of the sample included fifteen Christians, seven non-believers, two Hindus, one Muslim and one Buddhist; eight of the participants did not declare their religious background but simply stated that they believed in God.


The data were collected during eight game sessions altogether, four in each school. The parents of the pupils were sent letters to obtain their informed consent. Furthermore, before the start of each game, written consent was also obtained from the pupils. In both schools the class teacher allocated the children into groups of between three and five pupils who played the game together. The tables below illustrate the composition of the groups.

Game Gender Christian Muslim Hindu Buddhist non-believer not specified/believes in God
Game 1 girl 2          
boy 1   1      
Game 2 girl           2
boy           1
Game 3 girl 1          
boy 2          
Game 4 girls 1 1       2
boys 2          

Table 1.
The composition of the primary school groups

Game Gender Christian Muslim Hindu Buddhist non-believer not specified/believes in God
Game 1 girl 2     1    
Game 2 girl         1 1
boy 2       1  
Game 3 girl            
boy     1   4  
Game 4 girls         1 1
boys 2         1

Table 2.
The composition of the secondary school groups

The individual games lasted between 10 and 25 minutes each. During all the eight games the researcher sat at the same table as the children. The games were audio recorded and the game events were noted down on paper. After each game session the participants were debriefed and any concerns arising from the game were addressed. Both classes were visited on a later occasion to explain the findings and give out certificates for participation. The recordings were transcribed and the names were changed to protect the identity of the participants.


The analyses of the transcripts were based on principles of qualitative content analysis outlined by Mayring (2000). The first part of the analysis looked at the content of the dialogue, focusing on the pupils' religious identity and their views on religious questions. The religious backgrounds of the pupils were categorised as seen in tables 1 and 2. Those with religious beliefs were additionally divided into religious pupils and those who considered themselves as not religious or ‘not that religious'. The religious identities of the sample were further categorised based on Schweitzer's (2007) theory of religious individualisation and Fowler and Dell's (Fowler and Dell, 2006) theory of stages of faith, i.e. symbolic, literal, conventional, individualised. Next, views that showed valuing and accepting people who hold different beliefs and customs were coded as ‘tolerant'. Views that illustrated un-acceptance of others as equal members of society were coded as ‘intolerant'. Finally, religious identity and tolerance were linked across the categories identified and the two age groups were compared.

The second part of the analysis looked into the conversational behaviours exhibited by the children while they played the game and was guided by similar principles of qualitative content analysis outlined above and was supplanted by conversational analysis (Hutchby and Wooffitt, 1988). The coding system used in categorising conversational behaviours included: respect, tolerance, open-mindedness, disrespect and intolerance. Including others in the dialogue, encouraging statements, listening to other's point of view without interrupting or active listening and asking questions, were coded as indicators of respect. Expressions of disagreement, that involved indicators of respect, were coded as displays of tolerance. Collaborative thinking and compromising showed the children were willing to take each others' perspectives seriously allowing them to influence their understanding and therefore, were coded as open-mindedness. Not letting others have their say, discouraging others from having their say, not listening, showing disinterest and teasing were coded as ‘disrespect'. Disagreement, which involved indicators of disrespect, was coded as ‘intolerance'. Finally the two age groups were compared in terms of the categories identified.

This paper aims to explore two research questions. How is the development of religious identity linked to tolerance? What developmental differences are there in the ways children demonstrate religious tolerance in their interactions?

Findings (Part I) Religious Identity and Tolerance

From unquestioned beliefs to loss of faith and individualised faith

The primary school children all expressed unquestioned beliefs in God (see extract 1); even though four of them declared they were not religious or ‘not very religious'.

Extract 1

"I believe in God because [pause] if, if God wasn't real we wouldn't have all these lovely things and, and the world and the moon and the stars."

(Girl aged 9 years)

Consistent with Fowler and Dell's (2006: 37-39) faith development theory, the younger children had both literal and non-literal understandings of faith. Religious practices and rules were understood in concrete terms as can be seen in the following extract:

Extract 2

"Some people that uhm …problems over their hair, headscarf because uhm… because of the devil and it does wee on our head if we don't wear it."

(Girl aged 10 years)

However, there was an understanding in some of the children of the non-literal nature of religious narratives. For example, in two of the four games the children agreed that religious stories can be made up.

In contrast, seven of the 18 adolescents did not believe in God and two of those who did believe in God declared they were not religious. Consistent with Schweitzer's (2007: 91-92) research, some of the adolescents showed traits characteristic of individualised religion by picking and choosing what they believed in from many different religious traditions:

Extract 3

"I believe in God, I believe in own choice, I believe in free will, I believe in a lot more, I believe in peace…Om…you gotta believe in that …

Definitely, definitely in ghosts, gotta believe in ghosts, I've seen tons of them."

(Girl aged 13 years)

Loss of faith and individualised religion could have been indicative of loss of purpose.

However, the adolescents expressed beliefs in many things and referred to friends, family and people around them, when explaining what makes their life meaningful. In contrast to prior research and theory (Streib, 2001: 143-58; Schweitzer, 2007: 89-100; Giddens, 1991: 201-02), high modernity and religious individualisation did not seem to create insurmountable obstacles over creating meaning and identities within this sample.

The adolescents referred more to the symbolic meanings behind religious practices and narratives consistent with Fowler and Dell's (2006: 39-40) synthetic-conventional stage. For example, in three out of the four games, the adolescents agreed that religious stories can be "made up to prove a point". Explanations of religious practices also showed the adolescents' understanding of symbolism (see extract 4 below).

Extract 4

(Question: Why do Muslim women wear headscarves?)

Dominic: "Aren't the parents like, is it, that they weren't like to hide their inner beauty or something."

Peter: "Yeah something like that yeah."

(Boys aged 13-14 years)

As in Fowler and Dell's (2006: 39-40) synthetic-conventional faith stage, conventional thinking was also present in the adolescents' dialogue. This was apparent in the inability to let go of the standpoint of ones own tradition. While some or the adolescents claimed they were open to other religions, their own viewpoint was seen as making a lot more sense.

From Moral Relativism to Moral Absolutism

While there was an emphasis on obeying religious rules, the younger children saw the truth of moral claims as relative, consistent with Kohlberg's (1984: 74-76) theory of moral development. While religious rules were considered synonymous with the law in one of the groups, the children made no references to everyone having to follow the same laws. Keeping to the rules was motivated by a desire to maintain good social relations by meeting the expectations of parents and God. It seemed that the unquestioned belief in God together with relative views of morality made the younger children more willing to accept differences in guiding social norms as can be seen in extract 5.

Extract 5

"…because it'd be really, it'd be rude if like, say someone's from a different leag[ue] uhm like from Hindu and then they're not allowed, and then Christians will say and like, you're not allowed to go to, uhm to have your religious court."

(Boy aged 9 years)

In contrast, some of the secondary school pupils shared more absolutist views of morality and found it troublesome that people would follow different religious rules (see extract 6). In line with Kohlberg's (1984: 74-76) theory, they had conventional views of morality and considered rules as paramount in maintaining social order. In two out of the four groups the adolescents also expressed some assimilationist views.

Extract 6

Wendy: "Uhm [pause] I think that if you live in Britain you should obey British rules, otherwise what's the point in having rules anyway."

Catherine: "Yeah that's true, I think we should follow the rules basically, then all will get along happily."

Wendy: "I think everyone should have the same rules otherwise it's not going to be fair is it?"

(Girls aged 13-14 years)

It seems that the conventional and absolutist view of morality may be compatible with the kind of surface tolerance that Blommaert and Verschueren (1998: 91-94) discussed. On one hand, the adolescents expressed appreciation of the cultural enrichment brought on by diversity of religions, but on the other, some of them thought that all would be happy if only everyone followed the same rules. This implies that surface features of a culture such as dress and language are sufficient to preserve the cultural identity of minority ethnic groups. In contrast, deeper differences in guiding social norms are seen as inconvenient and should not be tolerated.

Strict Social Categories vs Critical Thinking and Mistrust

Consistent with developmental theory (Aboud, 1988: 25), strict thinking about categories among the younger sample meant that some children had quite homogenous views of specific membership categories. Among one of the groups, someone who is a Christian and has been born in Britain was seen as more British (see extract 7).

Extract 7

Barbara: "Uhm, are you more British if you are Christian?"

Tom: "Yeah Nadim is Christian."

Laura: "Well." [hesitating]

Tom: "Nadim is Christian and he was born British so yeah."

(Pupils aged 9-10 years)

In line with developmental theory (Aboud, 1988: 24-25; Piaget and Weil, [1951] 1995: 256-74), the adolescents were more critical thinkers and were less strict about boundaries between membership categories. They showed signs of openness towards other religions and had more individualised views of religion (see extract 3 above). On the other hand, their ability for critical evaluation made some of them view religion negatively and some had a fear of religious fundamentalism as can be seen in extract 8.

Extract 8

Luke: "Some people like take advantage of their religion."

Joseph: "Some people can use their religion as an excuse, to cause damage to others."

Jaspal: "Terrorists."

(Boys aged 13-14 years)

Their better understanding of democratic principles and a law and order-orientated morality (Kohlberg, 1984: 74-76), meant that some of them saw following different rules as unfair and incompatible with co-existing in the same society (see extract 6). This, together with their mistrust and feelings of threat, made some of them seem less tolerant. This finding supports previous research, which has linked mistrust and feelings of threat and fear with intolerance (e.g. Avery, Sullivan and Wood, 1997: 36-37; Sullivan and Transue, 1999: 625-50).

Overall, within the dialogue, there were more indications of valuing diversity and awareness of the rights of others to practice their religion than there were signs of intolerance.

In contrast to research on political tolerance (Avery, Sullivan and Wood, 1997: 36-37; Sullivan and Transue, 1999: 625-50), greater understanding of democratic principles and critical thinking did not result in greater tolerance in the adolescents. In fact, it may even have generated some assimilationist views, illustrating how insufficient knowledge of democratic principles may be a cause of intolerance. More comprehensive teaching of democratic principles and teaching the importance of political tolerance, as Avery, Sullivan and Wood (1997: 32-38) have demonstrated, would be useful in tackling assimilationist views in these young people.

As was seen above, theories on cognitive and moral development (Aboud, 1988: 24-25; Piaget and Weil, [1951] 1995: 256-74; Kohlberg, 1984: 74-76) were insufficient to explain the development of tolerance. The higher cognitive sophistication of the older pupils did not lead to greater tolerance and respect in our sample.

As Schweitzer's (2007: 92-95) research, this study found that individualised religion and loss of faith did not necessarily relate to religious tolerance other than on a surface level. Consistent with previous research (Avery, Sullivan and Wood, 1997: 36-37; Sullivan and Transue, 1999: 625-50), trust was related to tolerance and open-mindedness.

Findings (Part II): Tolerance Within Conversational Behaviour

Open vs guarded interactions

Elaborate and collective answers, indicative of respect and open mindedness, were more frequent among the younger children as well as in the two single-sex games with adolescents, where the participants were less self-aware and wary of their answers. Within the younger age group, children from different denominations accentuated the similarities in their beliefs and sometimes participated in a joint construction of their religious beliefs (see extract 9). Inclusive discussion and openness about their views showed there was mutual respect and trust within the groups. Among younger pupils respectful treatment of others was suppressed if the players were more orientated towards the winning the game than hearing everyone's views.

Extract 9

Hanna: "Uhm I believe in God because [pause] if, if God wasn't real we wouldn't have all these lovely things and, and the worlds and the moon and the stars and everyth[ing], and what do you think, what do you think Saima?"

Saima: "Uh, I think just the same as you because uhm, cause God made like everything [pause] and, and he made like persons as well and he made stuff happen as well, and he always, and he, and he always uh, and he always uh [pausing]"

Hanna: "He believes in you."

(Girls aged 10 years)

The adolescents were more wary of sharing their religious beliefs with their peers and their discussions were not as open and elaborate. Disrespectful and indifferent behaviour such as lack of interest in others' views, not participating in the answering and teasing, was evident in two out of the four games. On occasions, behaviour such as this seemed to be related to keeping up an appearance of nonchalance (extract 10).

Extract 10

John: "Uhm, yes so like, yes and no because you don't need to and you kinda need to because you're religious [laughing] basically"

[boys laughing]

John: "I just say what comes to my head."

Anne: "I guess cause it would help you understand your religion."

John: "That's what I said [giggling]"

(Pupils aged 13-14 years)

Sometimes playfulness and joking built rapport among the players. At other times, however, it showed a lack of respect, in that the others' answers were not taken seriously. The disturbances lead to people not getting heard and discouraged further discussion. It may be that talking about intimate things such as values and meanings was harder for self-conscious adolescents and reluctance resulted in brief and riposte answers.

Consistent with previous research (Avery, Sullivan and Wood, 1997: 36-37; Sullivan and Transue, 1999: 625-50), trust seemed to be an important condition of tolerance and open mindedness. The finding that there was more trust and openness among the younger children is consistent with Erikson's (1968:128-33) theory of the development of identity. As adolescents struggle for autonomy they need to regain basic trust, positive self-esteem and feelings of relatedness with others. They are extremely fearful of being forced into activities in which they may feel exposed to ridicule and self-doubt (Erikson, 1968: 129). Mistrust was especially prevalent against the members of the opposite sex, demonstrated by the reduced numbers of elaborate and collaborative answers in the two mixed sex groups.

Cautious vs confrontational disagreements

The younger children showed advanced strategies which they used to deal with disagreements in a sensitive and respectful manner. The rules of the game, which stated that the answers needed to be agreed on, discouraged expression of openly divergent opinions. This was the case especially among the younger pupils, who were more enthusiastic about playing the game and winning tokens. Those few instances where there were differences of opinion were handled respectfully:

Extract 11

[On answering a question: Is it better to marry someone with same beliefs?]

Hanna: "Uhm I don't really think so because if you're married to someone and if they believe, and they believe in different Gods then that's Ok really because [pause] if they like, if they love them then that's OK"

Saima: "Yeah uhm I, I think if you marry like another, another person, like who's not in your religions it won't, it's not that good cause like you don't know what's gonna happen to you, and you, and well you will know them a little bit [pause] more but you won't know them like that much"

Researcher: "Ok"

Hanna: "We are going on to the next person"

(Girls aged 10 years)

While it is not Saima's turn to answer she joins in and disagrees with Hanna. Saima's opposition is mitigated by hedging and delaying the disagreement and she gives an account to justify her position instead of simply disagreeing. This elaborate response is a developmentally advanced strategy of disagreement (Garvey and Shantz, 1992: 115-16). It shows that Saima takes the other person's feelings and perspective into account. She also uses "I think" to frame her disagreement as an opinion to soften her commitment and decrease the truth value of her statement (Schiffrin, 1990: 244-45). In turn, Hanna accepts Saima's statement as an opinion and does not try to come to an agreement. Instead, she moves on and attempts to start collecting others' opinions without disagreeing, thus showing a respect for the sincerity of Saima's answer. Framing their positions as opinions allowed the girls to agree on the sincerity of each others' positions while disagreeing about the truth value of the statements. Such opinion framing is vital for tolerance since agreement over values is not always possible.

The adolescents showed similar patterns of negotiating disagreements. The use of opinion framing, hedging and delays was present, but to a lesser extent. They had more disagreements, their style was more direct (see extract 12) and on one occasion even confrontational. On the other hand, while there was only one instance of a compromise among the younger children, there were 3 among the adolescents.

Extract 12

[On answering a question: Can a religious story be made up?]

Catherine: "No"

Sue: "Yeah"

Wendy: "Yeah, cause they don't exist, it can be made up."

Catherine: "[very quiet voice] Can it?"

Wendy: "No I think either of them are like sick like uhm"

[Catherine and Sue laugh]

Wendy: "Like uhm, the wise man built his house from a rock etcetera, that's all made up to like prove a point and that."

Catherine: "It makes sense"

(Girls aged 13-14 years)

In contrast to the previous example, Sue and Wendy's disagreeing statements are certain and without hedging. Catherine is not satisfied and questions Wendy's opinion gently. Wendy responds by starting to give an account for her answer and is now trying to soften and mitigate her disagreement more. She shows awareness of Catherine's perspective and explains that she does not mean religious stories are made up in a bad sense. Her unexpected and perhaps out of character use of the colloquial term "sick" (meaning "good" or "excellent") makes the others laugh. Eventually, Wendy is successful in explaining her view and Catherine agrees with her, or at least agrees with her line of reasoning.

Less disagreement among the younger children could have been due to moral relativism, which made them more at ease with different viewpoints. The primary school pupils were also more enthusiastic about the game and agreeing was part of the rules. Furthermore, being submissive and agreeing for the sake of it rather than attempting to negotiate is, according to Selman and Schultz (1989: 387), typical of younger children. The younger children may have seen disagreement as more harmful to their friendships. According to Dunn and Slomkowski (1992: 84-85) the purpose of their conflict management is to ensure peer acceptance and thus they are highly motivated to avoid overt disagreements.

Another possible explanation for the differences in dealing with disagreements is category entitlements (Sacks, [1970] 1992: lecture 4, 242-48). In extract 11, Hanna and Saima represented different views, Muslim and Christian. In many of the other games the participants belonged to the same religion and were happy for others to answer questions on their behalf. Saima and Hanna, however, belonged to different faiths and both their opinions needed to be voiced, otherwise the dialogue would not have been representative of everyone's views. Since members of different religious groups are entitled to have different viewpoints, no resolution was needed. In contrast, disagreements where the two opposing views were from representatives of the same viewpoint, such as in extract 12, were more troublesome and needed a resolution. As Sacks ([1967] 1992: lecture 10, 708) points out, disagreements between members of the same group makes it problematic to define what people from that category group really feel like and how they think.

While there were signs of the use of social and emotional skills in both the age groups, the younger sample used more elaborate negotiative strategies in their disagreements and showed more signs of relating to each other. However, when winning the game (younger pupils) or self-presentation (adolescents) was a priority, respectful behaviour was less important. In both age groups, it was the willingness rather than the ability to use emotional or social skills that related to tolerance and respect.

Game behaviour

In some of the games, the rules about turn-taking were gradually relaxed and everyone started participating in answering the questions, not just the two people whose turn it was. This shows that the children had understood the underlying purpose of the rules about turn-taking; allowing everyone to have their voices heard. As Piaget (1932: 83-89) pointed out, by playing games children learn to think of rules more critically and apply them more flexibly to achieve fairness and mutual respect.


While maturation of social, emotional and cognitive skills is needed for the development of tolerance (Schultz, Barr and Selman, 2001: 7-9; Kohlberg, 1984: 74-76), this research illustrated that it is down to the development of identity whether these skills lead to tolerant behaviour. At a lower developmental stage, unquestioned beliefs in God and literal understandings of religious rules co-existed with openness towards other perspectives and moral relativism. Paradoxically, while adolescence is a time for self-exploration, it was the teenagers who seemed to be less open to different perspectives. Their symbolic understanding or religion, individualised religion, loss of faith and critical thinking was sometimes linked with mistrust, negative views towards religion and religious people and assimilationist views.

This research demonstrated variation in the ways children of different ages show tolerance in their conversational behaviour. The reluctance to disagree and confront others among the younger children was contrasted with more frequent and direct disagreements, but also more compromises, among adolescents. Despite the disagreements children from both age groups showed ability to work towards solutions and respect for each other's views. Among the younger participants in this sample, trust, openness and collective thinking were prevalent. Strict thinking about social categories, however, seemed to relate to less tolerant views. Among the adolescents, issues with self-presentation and mistrust, related to this stage, seemed to be the main stumbling block in demonstrating tolerance and respect. The research also showed that a co-operative environment with opportunities for dialogue and negotiation can induce tolerant behaviour and promote learning about procedural tolerance.

However, the results of this research are limited and cannot be generalised. The design was cross-sectional, the sample studied was small and the groups were not matched in the least. Since the group discussions did not always include the views of all the children they did not necessarily represent everyone in the sample. The changing group dynamics, the presence of the researcher as well as the sometimes noisy and open surroundings all contributed to differences between the games. Variations in the amount of disclosure between the different groups, for example, may have been due to these factors. Finally, the analysis of the material is firmly interpretative and represents one version of reality.

Future studies on development of tolerance in the context of social interactions, using a longitudinal design and more carefully selected samples, are needed. Instead of using questions about values that cannot always be agreed on, questions about social dilemmas could promote collaborative thinking and compromises. The issues of trust and self-esteem, related to adolescence, need to be tackled before tolerance can be become part of a person's behaviour. The challenge is to develop approaches that help young people overcome these issues. Collaborative contact with others who have different beliefs is vital in this respect. Recognising the religious and non-religious backgrounds of pupils and giving them the opportunity to discuss their beliefs in an inclusive and respectful environment, can raise children's self-esteem, create trust and show them how to deal with diversity and difference. After all, these skills are all needed for living in the multicultural democratic society for which schools are supposed to prepare children.


Many thanks to my supervisor Dr Alfredo Gaitán from the University of Bedfordshire for his help and support throughout this research. Also thanks to the two anonymous peer reviewers for their helpful comments.


[1] Minna Lehtonen is currently working as a teaching assistant in a primary school in Bedfordshire, England. In the future she plans to develop the tolerance game that was designed for this study and do a doctorate in Educational Psychology.

List of Illustrations

Image 1: Children playing the board game designed for the study. Author's own image.

List of Tables

Table 1: Composition of the primary school groups

Table 2: Composition of the secondary school groups

Appendix 1

Examples of the game questions

Individual questions:

  • Tell everyone around the table what you believe in, whether you are religious or not, and ask everyone to do the same.
  • Do you think that everything in life has a purpose? Why?
  • What makes life meaningful is knowing that…
  • My life is significant because…
  • I think the most important thing in life is…

Joint questions:

  • Should all the people in the world believe in the same religion?
  • Can a religious story be made up?
  • Why do some Muslim girls and women wear veils and some do not?
  • Would God help someone who doesn't believe in Him?
  • Should you attend religious services if you are religious?
  • What is the purpose of the caste system in Hinduism?
  • Should children believe in the same things as their parents do?
  • Is it better to marry someone who has the same beliefs or someone who has different beliefs?
  • Do religious people behave more morally?
  • Can you be a Hindu if you eat beef?
  • Should a person who lives in Britain and follows stricter religious rules have the right to be judged in their own religious courts?
  • Are you more British if you are Christian?


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To cite this paper please use the following details: Lehtonen, M. (2009), ‘The Development of Religious Tolerance: Co-operative Board Games with Children and Adolescents', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 2, Issue 2, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at