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Philosophy for children

by Katharine Hunt

"What a silly school this is! Fancy asking people
questions if you don't know the answers!"
— Enid Blyton
The Folk of the Faraway Tree

After gaining a BA Philosophy at Southampton University, I was unsure what job I wanted to do. I started working for the Midland Bank (now HSBC), but found myself in a highly pressured yet very uninteresting job.

At university I had read a newspaper article about 'philosophy with children' and was interested by the very idea, but none of my lecturers seemed to know anything about it.

I first contacted Pathways in response to a small advert in The Times a couple of years later, and studied the course "The Ultimate Nature of Things". Following up contacts suggested by Geoffrey Klempner, I eventually found my way to the Society for Promoting Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education — SAPERE — and have been a member ever since.

People often ask "What is philosophy?" — so what is philosophy with children? Of course, it's not like the kind of philosophy undergraduates learn at university. A simpler way to describe it would be the teaching of reasoning. In philosophy sessions, children might read or listen to a story, poem or newspaper article, formulate a class list of questions raised by the reading matter, and choose perhaps 1 or 2 to investigate further. They would be expected to give reasons for their views, and any agreements or disagreements with the other children. The atmosphere is supposed to be, or evolve into with practice, one of mutual respect, where people try to understand each other's views, rather than trying to put people's ideas down. The teacher acts as a kind of chairman, guiding the discussion but without supplying the ideas to be discussed. It has been done with children of all ages, in various countries, with children from different backgrounds.

I attended SAPERE's conference in Oxford last year. The theme was "Educating without Dictating". It was a hot day in June. After an introductory talk, I spent the first part of the morning discussing 'Newswise' — newspaper articles used to teach English/ philosophical enquiry at Key Stages 2 — 3. Everyone gathered together for a talk on the educational philosophy of John Dewey. Then, after a delicious buffet lunch I enjoyed an interesting and humorously presented workshop on working with able children; a particular interest of mine.

The workshops were over very quickly — too quickly; only a few of the many issues raised could be addressed. I attended the SAPERE AGM, then we were able to enjoy a cup of tea before heading home.

I am sure anyone concerned with this area of philosophical activity would find this year's conference particularly interesting; it forms part of the International Council for Philosophical Inquiry with Children conference. The conference takes place in Winchester, Hampshire (England) in July, from 12th — 17th, with the focus on SAPERE on the weekend of the 14th and 15th.

Anyone interested should contact SAPERE's secretary:

Sara Liptai
7 Cloister Way
Leamington Spa
CV32 6QE

or visit the SAPERE web site —

I have been working in a Montessori nursery school for just over 2 years. I am particularly interested in philosophy with children, and also the educational needs of the highly able. The children I work with are between 2 and 5 years old, and are perhaps a little too young to consider philosophical questions — many of them are still learning to talk. Nevertheless, my knowledge of philosophy for children has made a subtle difference to the way I question the group.

As a nursery teacher, I usually find myself asking questions because I want to find out what the children know: "What colour is your jumper? What day is it? What is this called?" As philosophy for children points out, we want children to ask exciting, enquiring, thoughtful questions — and yet this is the kind of example we give them — questions to which we already know the answers! When possible, I try to ask questions where I don't have the answer — for example, on a cold March morning while setting up our calendar, I asked "Is it winter or spring?"; and on reading "Elmer and Wilbur", in which Wilbur the elephant is stuck up a tree with no explanation of how he got there, "How do you think an elephant could get up a tree?" One child surprised me with his thoughtful answer to this one; having disappeared off to the toilet, he returned and suggested "He could've lifted himself up with his trunk."

When I left University, I decided not to pursue further study in philosophy because I wanted to 'do something more practical'. It would be nice if I can one day use philosophy with children to do just that.

© Katharine Hunt 2001