Philosophy for children

Children discussing ideas
Students in Maria’s classroom

The Philosophy for Children (P4C) movement started in America in the 1970s. It is becoming more and more popular all over the world, as research shows the cognitive benefits of studying philosophy. I am myself a strong believer in philosophy for children and try to cultivate philosophical skills in the young people I teach — whether in formal ethics lessons, or, more informally, in the course of teaching other subjects. Here’s a brief introduction to P4C in question-and-answer format.

Q: What is philosophy?

A: We can distinguish two things we might mean by ‘philosophy’. On the one hand, there is academic philosophy. This is an academic discipline, which has produced a huge body of literature on many deep and difficult topics, including theory of knowledge, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and the nature of the mind. Much (though not all) of this literature is too difficult for children. On the other hand, there is the philosophical method (or ‘critical thinking’). This is a way of careful thinking, reasoning, and debating which can be applied to practically any topic and which can be practised by students of all ages. This is what P4C focuses on.

Q: Isn’t philosophy too hard for children?

A: People used to think that you couldn’t teach philosophy to pre-teens because their mental abilities were not developed enough for abstract thinking. But more recent research has shown that this is not the case. Children as young as four are capable of basic philosophical thinking. And there are big advantages to starting philosophy as early as possible. Young children naturally ask ‘Why?’ questions, but they need to learn how to interpret and evaluate the answers they get, and to form the habit of standing back and assessing their own thoughts — things that do not always come naturally.

Q: How do you teach philosophy to children?

A: P4C uses simple problems which children might encounter in their daily lives — for example, ethical problems relating to bullying, fairness, lying, or stealing. When I teach children I introduce these issues with simple, everyday scenarios, using storytelling, puppet theatre, or role-playing. The scenarios usually involve a group of children who encounter some problem and take different views about it — for example, about the rightness or wrongness of what somebody did. I invite the children to express their own views on the matter and gradually get them to debate with each other, listening to their friends’ views and giving reasons for their own. My role is to be a facilitator, not a lecturer.

The teacher might also introduce simple problems in philosophy of mind and epistemology, such as whether the mind is separate from the body, whether humans are animals, how you know that you’re not dreaming, how far you can doubt things. It is also possible to do simple logic with children — for example, by asking if sentences ‘reverse’ (for example, all birds fly, but are all flying things birds?).

Q: What are the benefits of philosophy for children?

Philosophy develops key cognitive skills. In studying the subject, students learn to think in a careful, critical, and creative way. They practise analysing, interpreting, and understanding novel ideas, develop skills in reasoning and argumentation, and get into the habit of reviewing, evaluating, and critiquing their own views and prejudices. Philosophy also enhances social skills. It is essentially a communal, verbal activity, involving the public presentation and discussion of ideas, and as such it develops skills in communication and social interaction as well as boosting students’ confidence in their abilities.

One huge benefit of this is that children learn to listen to and respect each other. It transforms the classroom into a ‘community of inquiry’, in which students exchange ideas openly and respectfully. So they also learn respect, tolerance, and empathy. In effect, we’re teaching them a new way of dealing with disputes and differences. When they disagree with each other, they shouldn’t get angry or upset, but ‘get rational’ — offering reasons for their view, listening to the other person’s reasons for theirs, and being prepared to change their view if the other person’s reasons are better.

As children get older, skills in critical and creative thinking become even more important. They are essential tools for progress in all areas of education, helping students reflect on and evaluate what they learn, detect underlying principles and patterns, and make creative contributions to their subjects. These skills are also vital for personal development, helping turn young people into clear, independent, and creative thinkers, who can take full responsibility for their own future. The overall aim is to help children become smarter, better informed, more tolerant, more respectful of themselves and each other, and better able to play a constructive role in society.

Q: How do you assess children’s work in philosophy?

A: It’s sometimes said that there are no right answers in philosophy. So how do you assess students’ progress in the subject? There are two points to make in reply. First, you can assess their progress in acquiring the specific skills you are trying to teach — for example, in offering reasons, in responding constructively to criticism, and so on. Second, progress in philosophy will show up in improvements in students’ work in other areas. Philosophy is basically clear thinking, and clear thinking will is useful in all subjects. Philosophical skills can — and should — be assessed globally.

Q: Will philosophy make children unteachable?

A: Teachers sometimes worry that philosophy will encourage students to question everything and make them hard to teach. I think this worry is unfounded. For it misunderstands the aim of philosophy. Philosophy is not just about asking questions, but about thinking rationally about different possible answers to those questions. And this makes students better learners overall.

Q: How can I learn to teach philosophy to children?

A: I believe it is important to teach adults to teach philosophy to children — to show teachers and parents how to use philosophical techniques at in the classroom and at home. I call this Philosophy for Adults for Children — P4A4C — and I plan to develop some resources for it myself. if you are interested, contact me!