Philosophy for Children: Frequently Asked Questions
Why do we need to encourage students to think philosophically?
To learn more about the value and importance of philosophizing with children, please read PLATO’s article “Why Philosophy? Why Now?”
Developing an awareness of the philosophical dimensions of our lives – sometimes characterized by philosopher Jana Mohr Lone as developing “philosophical sensitivity” – is a key outcome of engaging in philosophy at an early age. For example, as children learn to recognize when situations have an ethical dimension, they begin to appreciate that how they respond in such situations will help determine both whether those situations become more or less good, right or just, and the kind of persons they are becoming.
The central method of philosophical inquiry is careful, logical, and rational thinking.
Philosophy has always been preoccupied with good thinking, with logic being one of its oldest branches. While formal logic is beyond the skill of most young children, they are very capable of the informal logical operations that constitute basic reasoning, including:
- Giving reasons
- Considering evidence
- Agreeing and disagreeing
- Giving examples and counter-examples
- making comparisons and distinctions
Philosophy in elementary school should familiarize children with how to reason well as well as how to hold respectful and rational conversations with their peers. Philosophy also helps students learn how to have confidence in their own unique ideas.
Philosophical discussions provide students with opportunities to practice important communicative and social skills.
Additionally, children who participate in disciplined philosophical dialogue can learn to overcome shyness, aggression and attention-grabbing behaviors for the sake of cooperating in a kind of group work they find meaningful.
When engaging in a philosophical discussion, students need to practice skills such as:
How do you philosophize with children?
The teacher or “facilitator” of philosophical dialogues does not lead students to a predetermined answer or attempt to validate every opinion as equally sound.
The goal of a philosophical dialogue is not agreement or final resolution, but that all participants be able to decide what each thinks is most reasonable, whether those judgments are in line with the views of a majority or a minority of the other participants or is one student’s view alone.
A philosophy teacher should model and prompt careful thinking within a discussion and help students see the structure of their arguments and encourage them to work towards finding the most reasonable answer.
For examples of philosophy lesson plans and activities, see the “Philosopher’s Toolkit“
How do you learn how to philosophize with children?
Many different approaches and tools can be used to ensure that the materials used to inspire philosophical inquiry are age-appropriate:
- Children’s literature
- Activities and games
- Film clips
- Stories the children bring to the classroom
- Current events
- Personal experiences
There is a wealth of materials available for introducing philosophy in schools, including many resources on this website.
It is important that the materials used in a philosophy session not only present one or more philosophical themes, but also present them as contestable – preferably, a variety of perspectives on the theme should be represented.
Facilitating philosophy sessions in schools requires someone who is curious and loves thinking about complex ideas, but doesn’t think s/he knows everything!
Philosophy Teacher Skills:
- Listens with a philosophically sensitive ear
- Models careful thinking to students
- Strong Facilitation Skills
- Asking Open-Ended Questions
- Identifying the need for clarification
- Helping to connect ideas
- Comfortable with ambiguity
When having a discussion of any kind, it is helpful to have a set of ground rules. Philosophical discussions benefit from a list of agreed-upon expectations because everyone needs to know what type of speech, attitudes, and behavior are conducive to rigorous reflection, debate, and discussion.
What types of resources are there for people wanting to learn more about how to do philosophy with children?
To help parents, teachers, and students learn about how to lead philosophy discussions, consider the following workshops and summer seminars:
- The Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children holds yearly summer trainings for parents and educators – find out more: IAPC Summer Seminars
- University of Washington’s Center for Philosophy for Children workshops and programs for teachers and parents – find out more: UW Center Workshops
A few resources for expanding your knowledge of philosophy
The following is a list of helpful resources to help you learn how to philosophize with children and youth. This list also includes useful books to assign older students to read as part of a philosophy class.
The Problems of Philosophy
by Bertrand Russell
This slim, classic volume offers an overview of philosophical issues including the nature of reality and the value of philosophy. It does not touch on ethics or social or political philosophy. This work is best for adult readers.
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What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy
by Thomas Nagel
Even slimmer than Russell’s classic, this modern overview of philosophical issues is an easy read for most adults and high school students, and probably by many upper-level middle school students. As the author puts it, “This book is a brief introduction to philosophy for people who don’t know the first thing about the subject.” Nagel’s chapters consider nine problems of philosophy, in a very engaging style.
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by Christopher Phillips
Phillips began the Socrates Café movement, which sets up adult philosophy discussion groups at bookstores and other free-access public venues. Phillips’ book is based on the idea that philosophy is something you do –through debate and discussion – rather than simply study, a very appropriate approach for young people. Questions spotlighted in this book include: “What is insanity?” “How do you know when you know yourself?” “What is a world?” “Does anyone have the right to be ignorant?” and “Why question?” Because the tone is colloquial rather than scholarly, it helps those without a philosophy background grasp the nature of philosophical discussion.
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A few resources for learning about philosophy for children
Dialogues with Children
by Gareth B. Matthews
Matthews records his philosophical conversations with children aged 8 through 11. Matthews wants us to take seriously “…the possibility of tackling with children, in a relationship of mutual respect, the naively profound questions of philosophy… children’s contributions may be quite as valuable as any we adults have to offer.” In addition to giving a sense of what children can do, Matthews describes stories and questions that prompt rich discussion and that you may wish to adapt for your own use.
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Philosophy in the Classroom
by Matthew Lipman, Ann Margaret Sharp, and Frederick S. Oscanyan
Lipman was a leading figure in philosophy for children. This textbook for teachers offers a pedagogical argument for how philosophical thinking can be used in teaching children. The authors describe a curriculum developed at the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children and explain its use…
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Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy Through Children’s Literature
by Thomas E. Wartenburg
This teacher-friendly, easy-to-read book suggests how teachers can discuss philosophical questions embedded in works of children’s literature. This may be particularly effective for teachers who want to do philosophy in conjunction with reading and writing. Its audience is primarily elementary school teachers, but the book’s suggestions can easily be adapted for middle school.
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The Philosophical Child
by Jana Mohr Lone
considers young people’s philosophical potential and explores ways that parents and other adults can recognize and stimulate philosophical conversations about children’s questions. The book describes a wide variety of resources for generating philosophical inquiry with young people of all ages.
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Questions: Philosophy for Young People
brought to your by PLATO – Philosophy Teaching and Learning Organization
Questions is PLATO’s annual journal, which publishes work by young people and by adults working with young people; it provides a unique forum for the philosophical questions – and answers – of young people and their teachers. Each topical issue contains philosophical discussions, drawings, and philosophical writing by students in an easy-to-read newsletter format. The journal also publishes articles offering advice and ideas for teachers and parents interested in facilitating philosophical discussions with young people.
Check out Questions: Philosophy for Young People »
See also many additional books in the Books Section of our Resource Library