Category Archives: Philosophy for children/Pre-college philosophy

philosophy with children at Pacific APA

I’m currently attending the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, in San Diego, California. Today I attended two sessions on doing philosophy with children–one on “Raising a Philosophical Child” and one on a book by Jana Mohr Lone called The Philosophical Child.

I decided to tweet about a few of the issues and questions raised in these presentations, and Mariana Funes suggested I keep tweeting about things I was interested in and use these tweets as a springboard for a blog post. Good idea, I thought. 


This idea really hit me right off the bat. It’s from a quote by Charles Payne in I‘ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. He was talking about being surprised at the capacities of ordinary people when they do extraordinary things, and this may say more about our view of people than anything else. The speaker, Marisol Brito from the University of Minnesota, said that we are often surprised at what children can do, what they think and say, but perhaps this is just because we have an impoverished sense of children’s capacities.

Yes. How often am I surprised at what my child can do, what he is capable of asking about, of discussing at the age of 6 (or 5, or 4, etc.), but should I be? After all, if we continually have the experience of being surprised by what kids can do, and we have it with many kids over time, perhaps it is time to rethink our expectations of children. With parents, I suppose it makes sense, though–we have seen our children start off as beings who can hardly see straight (literally) to ones who can say a few words, to ones who can reason out complex arguments. At each stage we see they can do more and more, and in comparison to what they could do before it seems surprising. But there is also a more general sense of what children are capable of doing and thinking, and anecdotally I think it is often impoverished amongst those who don’t work with children often (I expect teachers and caregivers are less often surprised by what children can do!).

That the idea of doing philosophy with children seems strange and even impossible to some, who are then surprised to find out that they are very philosophically-minded (myself included, when I first started thinking about this issue) says quite a bit, I think, about what we think children capable of.



I wish I remembered which speaker today said this; it was only this morning and already I forget which it was (in my defense, there were five speakers in the first panel and four in the second, so lots of people to remember). I think it was Jana Mohr Lone. Regardless, this one really struck home for me too. I think I’ve been guilty of this sort of ageism myself. I can imagine my son, or another child raising a philosophical issue and I think it’s either “surprising” or something to put on Facebook or some such, but not something to have as sustained a conversation about as with one of my university students or another adult. And I’m a philosophy professor; I should know better.

But then, maybe that’s the problem; maybe it’s because I’ve been trained to think that philosophy is just the sort of activity we engage in with those who have studied the history of philosophy to some extent (and sometimes only the history of Western philosophy) and who can speak in terms of the conceptual frames and terms that are used in professional philosophy. Or at least, who could learn those frames and terms (undergraduate students, for example) and start speaking with them even if they don’t yet. So when a 6-year-old raises the same issue, it doesn’t seem like we’re doing philosophy in some way because the conversation has a different tone, uses different words, can’t get to the same level of deep subtlety.

But of course, an adult raising the same issue who has not been trained in philosophy can’t get to the same level of subtlety that we can get to with our colleagues or even our university students–imagine, for example, someone at a dinner party with no formal training in philosophy, with whom you end up talking about a philosophical issue. I can still imagine myself taking that conversation more seriously than I might with a 6-year-old on the same topic. Why? What does it mean to take a conversation seriously? Does it mean that one thinks the conversation can be beneficial for both parties, maybe? If so, that can certainly happen with children, who bring perspectives to such conversations unfettered by more solidified beliefs, and who can lead one to view the issues differently than before, perhaps (an experience reported by several people on the panels today). If taking a conversation seriously means it is worth one’s time to really engage, because one can learn from the other or vice versa, I think this can certainly happen with children.




These two thoughts go together. Doing philosophy with children involves getting them to talk about and give reasons for their views, and engage with the views of other children–agreeing, disagreeing, saying why, etc. There is less in the way of giving answers than asking them to come up with their answers, to say why they think so, and to be open to changing once they’ve talked with others. But when I compare this to what I do on a day-to-day basis with my son, I realized that most of my time with him is spent in answering questions rather than encouraging him to come up with answers.

Now, this makes sense in many contexts; for some things there just are answers to be given, and he really has no idea what those answers are or how to try to find them (he’s six, remember). But in other situations, the answers are less clear, the questions more philosophical, and I am missing opportunities to engage in conversation with him, to move together towards what we think the best answer should be. I just jump to telling him what I think, even when I know (and sometimes say) that there are different views on the subject that could be legitimate. Or, sometimes I just say “I don’t know” because there isn’t a clear answer and I am too tired to try to explain why. And yes, the lack of philosophical engagement with my child is sometimes just a matter of being too busy and too stressed to take the time.

But here’s an opportunity I could easily take that I don’t, usually: many children’s books raise philosophical topics, and I could ask him questions after reading the books that would get him thinking about things like ethical questions, questions about friendship, personal identity, and more. There was a demonstration of a philosophy with children session at one of the panels today, where some kids from a local school (I think around 8-9 years old) had a conversation about such topics with a teacher, after having heard a story being read to them that started the conversation. They were very, very eager to engage with these questions, a phenomenon reported by several presenters today. I’m a philosopher and I’ve never really tried this with my own child. Why? Mostly because I think I don’t know how. It’s like I can teach Plato and Hobbes and Foucault to undergraduates, but I don’t know how to ask similar questions of a 6-year-old. Is it really that different, though, once you get over the fact that the text being discussed is different? By the way, there are numerous books and resources about just how to have philosophical conversations with children, including with children’s literature. A list of several such books can be found at the website of the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children.



This question was asked by Norvin Richards of the University of Alabama, commenting on Jana Mohr Lone’s book noted above. Many have experienced how excited children are to engage in philosophical questions, and yet we also see a similar reticence (or “distaste,” in Richards’ words) in many adults. What happens in between? What changes? We can blame “the schools” for taking curiosity out of children, the standard answer (and maybe there’s some truth to that), but is there something about these two different stages of life, or the nature of the developing human brain and mind, that could account for the difference? This was an open-ended question, as we none of us have a clear answer. Here was one of his guesses (I think he used the word “guess”):



This makes sense to me, but then again, I don’t know much about this subject at all! Jana Mohr Lone replied by saying she thinks this may be the case, and because children have less experience with the world so perhaps what seems like it must be true may be more malleable (with less experience, less cementing of particular views of how things must work?). In response to these tweets, Jill Fellows suggested:



Yes, maybe so. But someone at one of these panels also said it can make sense to give kids what seem like “right” answers to philosophical questions because it provides them with more safety–doing philosophy with kids opens them up to uncertainty and the potentially frightening space of not being sure what to think. Now, this wasn’t given as a reason not to do philosophy with children, just a reason why some might not want to, or want their children to engage in philosophical discussions (this might be particularly true of those who want to instill certain philosophical or religious views in their children and don’t want these to be questioned). Still, I wonder if children are more or less open to uncertainty than adults; I honestly don’t know.

This sounds like a question for the psychologists!


I’m glad I decided to send out some tweets today; there is no conference hashtag (philosophers and twitter…hmmmm…), but I thought I’d tweet out a few things anyway. It provided a great way to take notes on what I found most interesting, and thus a good basis for a blog post. Thanks for the idea, Mariana!


CFP: teaching philosophy in high schools

I got this call for papers via email earlier this week. I am very happy to see the issue of pre-college philosophy getting attention in this way!


The journal Teaching Philosophy ( solicits contributions for a special issue devoted to philosophical inquiry at the high school level (including its non-U.S. equivalent, such as Gymnasium, Bachillerato, Sixth Form, etc.), with guest editors Jana Mohr Lone (University of Washington) and Mitchell Green (University of Virginia).

Articles on topics such as (but not limited to) the following are welcome:
· general methodological issues related to teaching philosophy at the high school level
· the challenges and rewards of introducing particular philosophical topics to this age group
· the value of preparing students for humanistic inquiry in college by reaching them during their time before college
· the contribution of philosophy to the cultivation of students’ critical reasoning skills
· the issues involved in creating entirely new, philosophically-based high schools
· the potential value of service learning college courses or internships that involve outreach to high schools through the medium of philosophy
· case studies (including either quantitative or qualitative assessment) of initiatives that have incorporated philosophy into the high school curriculum
· discussion of strategies that may be efficacious in overcoming institutional barriers to supporting philosophy classes in high schools.

Submissions from high school, college, and university faculty as well as independent scholars are welcome and should be prepared for blind refereeing. Submitted manuscripts should be no more than 8,000 words.

Deadline for submissions is September 1, 2012. Accepted papers will be published in mid-2013. Submissions should be made via the journal’s online submission system, at Please indicate that your submission is for the Special Issue on High School Philosophy.

Philosophy for Children

I attended a mini-conference on Philosophy for Children at the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association in April 2011. Another way of thinking of “P4C” is doing philosophy in “the schools,” or “pre-college” philosophy. The idea is not (or not simply) to teach texts in the philosophical genre to pre-college students, but more to teach philosophical ways of thinking. Sometimes this is done with very young children by reading children’s books and asking them questions to generate discussion. As a philosopher, and as the parent of a preschooler, this whole thing sounds absolutely essential. Why isn’t this more popular? Here are some great websites on P4C (see links on some of these sites for more…there are lots of great sites out there!):

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry:

“Teaching Children Philosophy” page, by Thomas Wartenberg, complete with an ever-growing list of children’s books and questions to go along with them to generate discussion:

Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children at Montclair State University:

Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children (at Univ of Washington):

PLATO: The Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (sponsored by the APA’s Committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy):