Tell me again how you know we're not only a dream?

Tell me again how you know we're not only a dream?

Children love to catch their parents off-guard with deep, meaningful questions at the most inconvenient of times. We are, more often than not, left floundering for the right response but in our attempts to steer the conversation away from these more difficult questions we may be missing out on an opportunity to encourage their inner philosophical side.

University of Washington’s Professor Sara Goering said at a recent TED talk that children are naturally searching for meaning. “Philosophy’s meant to be this deep, abstract, rigourous, difficult kind of discpline. People don’t think children are capable of doing it. When they look at me like I’m crazy for doing it, I’m like, you’re wrong. Kids are actually very natural philosophers. They ask these kinds of questions on their own and it’s our job to give them uptake on those types of questions.”

Kids are actually very natural philosophers. They ask these kinds of questions on their own ... 

Professor Goering is part of an international trend along with Britain’s Sapere to introduce philosophy to children. To her, the aims and benefits are obvious. “We want to enhance their cognitive skills; so critical thinking, they’re going to learn to build an argument, they’re going to learn to evaluate an argument using logic, they’re going to learn to respond to objections to their position. Those are good skills that are going to do well for them in other kinds of endeavours as well.”

Part of the benefit of group philosophy classes comes from navigating difference and developing behavioral skills. According to Professor Goering, “we want them to think creatively, come up with a counter example … we’ll also talk about behavioral skills; how can you converse with your peers, listen to them carefully, take them seriously and disagree with them without fighting or feeling hurt by the disagreement?”

Another benefit raised by Professor Goering and others is that philosophical inquiry for kids ignites a love of learning and may give a boost in school performance. “What we’ve found, not only in our own work … but in work done around the world in little pockets philosophy for children is that they do better on some of the standardised tests that we have for critical thinking, for language and literacy and for other things.”

The philosophy for children movement occurred in the early 60s when Columbia University Professor Matthew Lipman was dismayed by the lack of reasoning his students displayed. In contrast to the educational philosophy of icons such as Jean Piaget who believed critical thinking did not develop until the age of 11-12, Professor Lipman believed younger children were capable of abstract thought and ready to learn about logic.

Today, in a little community hall in Melbourne's suburbs lies one such initiative designed for inquisitive children. Children excitedly run in and hunker down to giggle and draw their version of utopia and have previously paired up as puppet/puppeteers to explore fate.

Set up by Michelle Sowey, the Philosophy Club consists of five week sessions exploring the history of thought using guided discussions, stories, craft and physical activity. Parents can track the discussions via the group’s Facebook page for unattributed quotes (in which parents can inadvertantly learn if their child is an animist or empiricist) or learn more about philosophy themselves.

In a group setting, the children emerge from their shells to bond and chatter, throwing ideas and imaginative scenarios at one another. There’s an element of exhilaration, a chance for unrestricted thoughts and exploration in an environment safe from judgment.  

For kids with a never-ending stream of confounding questions, philosophy might take them on an amazing path.

How to include philosophy at home with your kids

Philosophy rarely needs costly equipment. In fact, introducing philosophy at home often only requires conversation.

While exploring these thoughts, avoid saying that statements are right or wrong. Instead, ask variations on why - “why do you think that?”, “but what would happen if x happened instead of y”, “why do you think that’s true?”, “would that be good” or even “how would we figure that out”? The object is not to find the right answer, but for children to explore their thoughts and imagination. In addition, gently challenging kids with opposing views and asking their thoughts can help them not only think around the issue but also begin to develop debating skills.

Exploring questions

Ask the big questions, or even collect those big spur-of-the-moment questions that occur 5 minutes before bedtime. While discussing things from “what if we’re only a dream?” to “who made God?” or “what if right is wrong?” Prompt them for an answer and take the concept from there. Don’t have any questions? Start a conversation about emotions, asking them to explore feelings such as love, fear, happiness or anger.

Exploring story time  

Sharing a good book with your kids? Start asking them about the characters and the action. This could be as simple as “How would you describe this character? What does that character trait mean? Does everyone have it?”

Exploring the news

If you feel they are of an appropriate age, discuss the latest news with your child. Ask them what they think of certain stories, if they have any questions and exploring the concepts behind them. Where there is crime, discuss punishment or nature when it comes to natural disasters or, heavens forgive, kindness when it comes to Question Time in the House of Representatives.   

Disclaimer: Amy Gray’s daughter attends The Philosophy Club and asks so many questions that Wikipedia is consulted on a regular basis but the author promises to one day make it through Kierkegaard.