A couple of years ago I created a series of ethics puzzles to introduce various moral questions to two fourth grade classes. I adapted some of these scenarios from puzzles created by others and made up the rest. I found that formulating dilemmas that would be easily recognizable to ten-year-old students was an effective way to help the students see the core problem quickly. The puzzles engendered lively discussions and seemed to make these issues very concrete for the students.

The first dilemma concerns lying:
A girl is taken to a carnival by her dad. It is her tenth birthday and he’s promised her that she can choose any 5 rides. But as they approach the gate, he discovers that he’s forgotten his wallet. This is the last day of the carnival and it’s too far to go home and come back before it closes. He counts the change in his pockets and tells his daughter that he has enough money to pay the entrance fee and they can go inside and look at all the exhibits and the parade, but there wouldn’t be any money for rides, OR she could lie about her age and say she’s nine and get in for half-price, which would leave enough money for the 5 rides. They walk to the gate and the ticket seller asks the girl, “How old are you?” What should she say?What would you do in this situation? Why?

The second puzzle involves the nature of friendship. The students noted that this scenario comes up all the time in their lives:
You are spending the afternoon with a friend of yours who isn’t very popular. You run into a group of your friends who invite you to go to a movie but they say that your unpopular friend can’t come. What is the right thing to do?

The third puzzle involves animal rights, and evoked very strong views:
You have a little sister who is very sick. The only way to save her is to inject many kittens with the illness she has and experiment with various medicines to see if they will work. What should the doctors do? Do animals have a right to life? Are we justified in using them in experiments? In eating them?

The final scenario raises questions about obedience and authority:
You are in an art class at school. The teacher tells the class that today each student is to paint a painting of their best friend in the class. The class is uncomfortable with this, and one student points out to the teacher that some kids will have lots of kids painting them, and other kids won’t be chosen at all. The teacher insists that this is what the students should do. Almost all of the students don’t want to do this. What should you do? Is it disrespectful to disagree with your teacher? With your parents? Your friends? Can you disagree and still be respectful?

I love this last question: Can you disagree and still be respectful? In a public school, this can be a thorny issue and the students know it!

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Hi – I love your blog and your project, and I liked your ethics puzzels for ten-year-olds.

I'm in York, UK, and feeling my way through doing philosophy (of a sort) with pre-college kids in the community – i.e. not in school. Have you done any of that? I'd love to hear about your experiences if so.

I find it great fun – but two problems are: I can't take for granted any form of group structure beyond that which the kids want to generate spontaneously (i.e. no classroom settings) and also that some of them – even quite old ones – don't read very well.

Anyway – thanks so much for the material on your site