Philosophy with children

Jana Mohr Lone

is director of the Center for Philosophy for Children and affiliate associate professor at the University of Washington. She is the author of The Philosophical Child (2012), co-editor of Philosophy and Education: Introducing Philosophy to Young People (2012) and co-author of Philosophy in Education: Questioning and Dialogue in Schools (2016). Her latest book is Seen and Not Heard: Why Children’s Voices Matter (2021). She lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

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When I tell someone that I run a centre that brings philosophy into children’s lives, much of the time I’m greeted with puzzlement, and sometimes open scepticism. How can children do philosophy? Isn’t it too hard for them? What are you trying to do, teach Kant to kindergarteners? Or, somewhat more suspiciously, what kind of philosophy are you teaching them?

These reactions are understandable, because they stem from very common assumptions – about children and about philosophy. Central to our work at the Center for Philosophy for Children at the University of Washington is the conviction that we ought to challenge beliefs about children’s limited capacities, and to expand our understanding of the nature of philosophy and who is capable of engaging in it. As one seven-year-old put it: ‘In philosophy, we’re growing our minds.’

Most of our philosophy sessions with children are in public elementary schools; the aim is to discover what topics the children want to think about, and to foster discussions and reflection about these subjects. I don’t think of what I do as teaching philosophy, though. The point is not to educate children about the history of philosophy, nor to instruct them in the arguments made by professional philosophers.

Children’s questioning can constitute the most primary of philosophical activities: reflecting on the meaning of ordinary experiences and concepts in order to develop an understanding of the world, others and themselves. When I ask children what questions they wonder about, their responses typically include questions such as: why am I here? Who am I? Why is there hatred in the world? What happens when we die? How do I know the right way to live? One parent told me that her three-year-old daughter keeps asking her: ‘Mommy, why do the days just keep coming?’

Although adults know that young children are inclined to ask a lot of questions, we tend to believe that they’re too immature and unsophisticated to reflect seriously on complex topics. We characterise children as curious and full of wonder, but we assume that they don’t really understand the philosophical dimensions of the larger questions they pose.

But, if we think back, many adults will recall that their philosophical wondering began in childhood. For a lot of us, in fact, childhood is the period of life in which we spend the most time wondering. Quite a few professional philosophers’ interest in the field emerged from an early enthusiasm for questioning. Some describe the experience of taking a philosophy class or reading a philosophical text and recognising the questions involved as those they’d been thinking about since they were young.

When I was a graduate student in philosophy, I became intrigued by the questions my young children were asking. I began thinking about my own childhood and remembering the thoughts I had about life and death, the meaning of life, friendship, happiness, and family. I remember, for example, being six or seven years old, in bed and ready to sleep, thinking about death and the possibility that one day I would no longer exist in any form. Nothingness. How could it be, I reflected, that I was here, now, and then one day I would no longer exist? The fact that I would die someday was scary, and I wondered what it meant for how I should think about my life.

My conversations with children and parents over the years confirm that I was not alone in having these thoughts at this age. Aristotle maintained that ‘all human beings by nature reach out for understanding’. Early in life, young children begin to try to make sense of their worlds and to understand the way things work. Almost as soon as they can formulate them, children begin asking questions about the concepts they hear and the world they experience.

Around age four, children start asking what we call ‘why questions’. Why are people mean to other people? Why do I have to go to school? Why don’t dogs talk?

Many elementary school-age children are wide open to life’s philosophical mysteries, lying awake at night thinking about questions such as whether God exists, why the world has the colours it does, the nature of time, whether dreams are real, why we die, and why we exist. Once, during a philosophy session I was leading, a 10-year-old child asked me:

I want to know why we work hard and worry about money, and what we’re going to do when we grow up, what we’ll do for work and food and shelter, when one day we’re just all going to die. I mean, what’s the point? What does it mean to be alive?