Philosophy in Elementary School
Young children are naturally inquisitive. They struggle to make sense of their everyday experience and of the academic, social and cultural knowledge they begin to acquire at school – a process they typically enjoy, at least until it becomes routinized and associated with high-stakes rewards and punishments.
Young children’s curiosity and wonder are easily triggered. They are full of questions – and, significantly, many of their questions have philosophical content.
Young children’s experience is already replete with philosophical meaning. They have strong, even visceral, intuitions of what is beautiful and ugly, fair and unfair, right and wrong. They enjoy playing with language and are intrigued by logical puzzles.
Indeed, many professional philosophers date their interest in philosophy to their early childhoods.
Asking Philosophical Questions Encourages Curiosity & Imagination
Can Elementary Students Really Do Philosophy?
A person of any age can engage in philosophical thinking.
A number of innovative preschool and kindergarten programs have demonstrated that even very young children are able to take turns giving each other reasons. For example, they preschool children can explain why they think different insects are ugly, scary or beautiful – and they will alter their judgments as a result of the conversation.
As children approach adolescence, they often begin to focus on existential questions such as: What does it all mean? Is life ever fair? What is the purpose of my life?
Elementary school philosophy is not about imposing an unfamiliar, ancient, and highly intellectual discipline on children, in the hope it might be good for them, but about giving children the opportunity to explore ethical, aesthetic, political, logical and other philosophical aspects of their experiences that are already intensely meaningful for them, but that are not often given attention in schools (or elsewhere). In that regard, the reasons for elementary school philosophy should be the same as those for every other school subject.
The content of elementary school philosophy is not the traditional philosophical arguments that are the stuff of high school and college philosophy courses, or the traditional philosophical sub-disciplines of ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, political philosophy and logic, or even the important figures in the history of philosophy – though some of this may become meaningful for children once they have some experience with philosophy.
The objectives and structure of any elementary school philosophy program should reflect the children’s ages and socio-cultural context.
Some students need several months of practice in order to understand the difference between a question, an answer and a reason, or to be comfortable taking turns talking in a group.
Philosophical engagement with young children needs to be more playful and multi-sensory than philosophy with older children.
Elementary school philosophy draws students’ attention to philosophical concepts like fairness, person, mind, beauty, cause, time, number, truth, citizen, good and right – concepts that are already implicated in children’s experience, and that children need in order to make their experiences more meaningful, in both senses of that word: more understandable and richer, more worthwhile.
Is elementary school philosophy like the philosophy class I took in college?