Toddlers in togas: The examined life starts early

How to recognize a little thinker, and encourage insights in kids under the age of five

BY AMY LEASK — When I thought she was just coloring, a five-year old on the floor decided to pipe up and state “What makes us human is love.”

Confident, even matter-of-fact, it seemed as though she’d been mulling the question “What makes us different from other species?” over in her little brain for years, and had long since figured it all out.

She went back to her crayons, but the rest of us observed a good ten or fifteen seconds of silent awe.

This took place in the midst of a children’s philosophy workshop, something I do every so often.

It may seem strange, bringing deep and probing questions about human nature, the universe, and the meaning of life to people who aren’t old enough to make their own lunch. But I’m a thinker on a mission.

I’m convinced that long before we’re ready to drive or vote we’re already equipped with everything we need to understand what it all means.  More importantly, philosophical thinking is a habit that can benefit a person throughout his or her life, and the sooner it’s cultivated, the better.

I first became interested in philosophy for little thinkers while I was peddling “deep thought” to much bigger customers.  The grown-ups in my college classes were intelligent and curious, but surprisingly, a lot of them had made it well into their adult years without ever having pondered the mysteries of life.

What's he ReadingI’ll admit that I’m a little biased.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I have not one, but two degrees in philosophy.  A large portion of my home is occupied by books on the subject. And, although I also have t-shirts, postcards, and other sorts paraphernalia related to it, philosophy is more than a pop-cultural affiliation for me.

The work of Matthew Lipman and advanced philosophy for children

After some research, I found I wasn’t alone in wanting to build great thinkers from the ground up, so to speak.  Following the lead of Matthew Lipman, dozens of individuals and organizations worldwide had been developing philosophy resources for children for over twenty years.

In addition, they’d been helping both teachers and parents to be unafraid of the heavy stuff.  Imagine being able to have an intelligent, ongoing discussion with a preschooler about life after death, the real differences between boys and girls, or what it means to have power.

These children’s workshops, and other related projects, have brought me face to face with incredible new perspectives.  I no longer see Plato, Nietzsche, and de Beauvoir as just words on a page, but as colorful characters with dynamic personalities.

Kids are able to bring a refreshing, grass roots approach, and it’s gratifying to know that very old questions can be used to raise innovative, critical thinkers.  More importantly, they remind more “mature” minds that it’s never too early (or too late) to jump in with both feet and be unafraid to ask “Why?”

A few months ago, a little girl told me that she didn’t think animals felt regret because they don’t do regrettable things, like humans do.  A preschool boy wanted to know where he was before he was born.  Another little guy posited that God was some kind of alien that liked to visit Earth.

istock_000000182279xsmallTips for Nurturing a Child Philosopher

1.  When your child asks you a difficult philosophical question, don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know the answer (Socrates himself made a career of admitting this).

Praise him or her for coming up with something so interesting, and tackle the problem together. Brainstorm possible answers, write them down, and discuss the pros and cons of each one.  The most important thing is to keep thinking and talking about this question, even if you never find a rock-solid answer to it.

2.  Look for philosophical thought in all sorts of media. Children learn philosophy best if it’s presented in the form of stories and anecdotes.  Cartoons, storybooks, movies and websites can yield nuggets of wisdom, and are entertaining for thinkers of all ages.

3.  Turn philosophy into play.  Think through difficult questions by drawing pictures, making up songs, role-playing, or dancing. If your child is old enough to write, have him or her jot down their thoughts in a journal or make up a fictional story.

4.  Don’t be disappointed if your conversations only last ten or fifteen minutes at a time.  Children continue to mull over ideas on their own. If you create a discussion-friendly environment, they’ll likely bring it up again.

5.  For inspiration, hit the net and punch “Children’s Philosophy” into an online video site.  You’ll be surprised and delighted by the number of clips featuring kids in action.

6.  If you’ve never studied philosophy yourself, take your child’s interest as an opportunity to develop your own thoughts.  There are terrific books for adults that take this “grass roots” approach to philosophy.

amy-leasksmallAmy Leask operates Kids Think About It a website with information, resources and activities for young philosophers.

For slightly older wisdom seekers, she operates Teens Think About It and Local Philosophers.

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5 Responses to “Toddlers in togas: The examined life starts early”

  1. Hi Amy, thanks for your piece, I love kids shur I used to be meself. I also love the way they view things and how they vacillate from the profound to the inane. I remember one of my nieces asking me with very serious intense expression, “Why’s the sky blue?”, while I was baby sitting and thinking I was being a “Good Uncle”, I went into this long and very detailed explanation.

    She just gazed at me for a minute and then said, “Oh I just wondered, cos I haven’t got a blue crayon in my tin, I’ve only got a purple!” and I knew exactly how she felt..
    Slainte Danny Boy

  2. People who are interested in philosophy will discover it, I don’t think it should be pushed to anybody in any way.

    When my daughter got a philosophy book from the library for the first time, I felt compelled to warn her that you can start with philosophy but there is no way stopping it.

    She has ignored my advice to not read the book, which is fine to me.

  3. I am sorry to be off-topic, but I do have a problem with the editorial policy here.

    The above comment was not posted by me, it is an excerpt of a post I’ve made in the “Philosophy Network” on LinkedIn which was copied here by the editor of Soul’s Code. After I complained about that, she contacted me and I gave permission to keep my opinion about philosophy for children on this site.

    Now I see that the comment I did make on this website to point out that the original post was not by me has been removed by the editor. Please, let’s remain honest about this: manipulating the comments on a website is not OK.

  4. hi koen,

    since you gave your permission, the comment didn’t make sense any more. in any case, lessons learned.

  5. Hello Koen! Far be it for me to invite you or others to relax, in this moment.

    But this really is just a website. There is no threat to your being here, or survival.

    We try to help people with all of the above. Thank you for putting yourself out there, sharing your heartfelt views. We appreciate your intelligence, attention to detail and integrity.