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How to do philosophy with kids | Psyche

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Guide

How to do philosophy with kids

Embrace their questions, no matter how daft or daunting – kids are natural philosophers and you can learn from each other

Photo by Juanma Hache/Getty

Need to know

How old were you the first time you pondered a philosophical puzzle?

I was five. I wondered whether the other kids in my class saw colours the same way I did. What if red looked to me the way blue looked to them? And what if blue looked to me the way red looked to them? Would there be any way to tell that my colour experiences were the opposite of theirs? It didn’t seem so, since we’d agree on which things were red and which blue. They would just look different to us.

Philosophers have worried about this problem for ages. It’s called the ‘inverted colour spectrum’, and it raises deep questions about the nature of both colours and consciousness. But little kids have long noticed the problem too. Indeed, Daniel Dennett – a leading philosopher of mind – says that many of his college students recall having first thought about the possibility of an inverted colour spectrum in their childhoods.

That’s far from the only philosophical puzzle that attracts the attention of little kids. I’m a philosopher and a father. I’ve got two boys, Rex and Hank. From the time they could talk, they’ve been asking philosophical questions and trying to answer them.

Frequently, they recreate ancient arguments. When he was eight, Hank argued that we should believe in God so that we don’t upset him – if he’s real. Philosophers call that ‘Pascal’s wager’, after Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher. When Rex was four, he wondered whether he was dreaming his entire life. That question has deep roots in philosophy, too. It was key to René Descartes’s ruminations on knowledge, and long before that, played a prominent role in the Zhuang Zi, a 2,000-year-old Daoist text.

Kids ponder some of the deepest questions a person can ask. Why is the world here? What’s our part in it? Does God exist? Do we matter? Does anything matter? Grownups are often left flummoxed. The sheer volume can be hard to handle. But it can also be scary when a kid asks a question you aren’t sure how to answer. You’re supposed to be the expert, after all. But there’s no need to panic when a kid asks a question you can’t answer. In this Guide, I’ll show you ways to turn these moments into wonderful opportunities – and I’ll explain why it’s worth the effort.

Children are natural philosophers

Children can be crazy, a constant swirl of activity and (as every parent knows) of questions. How do you know when a kid’s asked something philosophical? If one of their questions makes you stop and wonder about the world, that’s a good sign. A philosophical question is one that requires us to think carefully about ourselves and the world in an effort to understand both better.

Few adults notice that kids are natural philosophers. But they absolutely are. The American philosopher Gareth Matthews spent most of his career in conversation with kids. He started the same way I did. He noticed his own kids asking philosophical questions and making philosophical arguments. And he wondered: do all kids do this? So he talked to parents and visited schools to talk to kids himself.

Matthews discovered that it was common for little kids to raise philosophical questions all on their own. The sweet spot was between ages three and seven. Matthews also found that kids were clever in the way they reasoned puzzles through. Indeed, he came to think that, in some ways, kids make better philosophers than adults.

Children have two advantages. First, they’re new to the world and constantly confused by it. So they ask about everything. Several years ago, the psychologist Michelle Chouinard listened to recordings of young children spending time with their parents. On average, the kids asked more than two questions per minute. Nearly a quarter of those questions sought explanations; the kids wanted to know how or why. Second, they aren’t afraid of getting things wrong – or seeming silly. Kids are wrong all the time. And silly is their main line of business. That makes them fearless thinkers, ready to share their thoughts, even if they don’t know that they’re right.

It’s worth supporting their philosophical instincts

If children are such natural philosophers, you might wonder why you need to help. The answer is: without encouragement, the gift can wane. Matthews found that kids’ spontaneous excursions into philosophy start to slow down around age eight or nine. At that age, they’re starting to worry what others will think of them. And they’ve come to realise that most adults don’t spend time pondering ‘Am I dreaming my entire life?’ So they leave those sorts of questions behind.

Still, Matthews found that he could prompt philosophical conversations with kids who were eight or nine or even older. They didn’t raise philosophical questions as often on their own, but all he had to do to get a conversation going was read them a story that raised a philosophical question and ask their thoughts about it. If he created space for philosophy, kids filled it.

That’s been my experience too. We’re past the days when Rex wonders aloud whether he’s dreaming his entire life. But when asked whether a hot dog is a sandwich, he immediately starts trying to work up a theory of what a sandwich is. (Does it require two pieces of bread? Does it matter what’s between them? Or just what sort of bread it is?) And in doing that, he’s taking on one of the core activities in philosophy – conceptual analysis.

There’s much to be gained from nurturing kids’ philosophical instincts. Rex once described philosophy as the art of thinking. That’s right – even when the topic is silly (‘Is a hotdog a sandwich?’), working it through hones a kid’s ability to draw distinctions, consider alternatives, and look for counterexamples. It builds skills that are useful in solving almost any problem. It’s the same sort of exercise as trying to figure out what truth is. Or justice. Of course, those questions are more important than settling what a sandwich is. But if we want our kids to think deeply about weighty issues, like truth and justice, we need to get them in the habit of thinking this way about whatever happens to engage them, hot dogs included.

And there are further benefits to tackling more serious issues with children. To start, if kids know that you’re interested in big questions (‘What are our lives for?’, ‘What happens when we die?’) they’ll be more likely to come to you with them. Second, philosophy can get kids in the habit of thinking through ways they might be wrong, which is a skill we can all use. And it can teach them the value of seeing things from other people’s perspectives, as they think through ways they might be wrong.

There’s something in it for you, too. It’s fun to hear kids’ ideas. They are clever and creative. They’ll surprise you with the subtlety of their thought. And they’ll remind you of some of the curiosities you had as a kid. Indeed, they can help us recapture our own sense of wonder at the world.

Think it through

Follow the leader

When they are little, kids will do philosophy, with or without you. The question is whether you’ll notice – and how you’ll respond when you do. Will you ignore their enquiries? Or support them?

The first step is simply to notice when a child has a philosophical question. Sometimes, it will be obvious. A kid who wonders why we’re here – what our lives are for – is obviously engaged in a philosophical enquiry. But, often, it’s easy to miss kids’ philosophical questions, since they don’t come with a label attached.

Many are embedded in complaints. Matthews told the story of a little boy named Ian. His family invited over another family. After dinner, their three kids picked a show to watch, preventing Ian from seeing his favourite programme. After they left, Ian asked his mother: ‘Why is it better for three people to be selfish than for one?’

I love that question. It’s a challenge to the thought (common among economists) that we should aim to maximise the satisfaction of people’s preferences. It’s also a challenge to democracy. Is counting votes a good way to decide what to do when people vote in their selfish interests?

Ian’s mother was confused by his question, and I suspect most adults would be too. Ian was challenging something grownups take for granted – that more people count for more. Ian’s mom didn’t stop to probe the question. And that was a missed opportunity to think with Ian about the best way for groups to make decisions together.

If she wanted to engage with the question, Ian’s mother might have asked: what do you think would be a fair way to decide what to watch? Or she might have pushed back on Ian’s premise – that the visiting kids picked the show to watch because there were more of them. In letting them pick, Ian’s mother might have been concerned to show hospitality to her guest. If so, she might have asked Ian how they could make guests feel welcome in their home, helping him see the situation in a different light.

The key here is to listen carefully to kids – to their curiosities and complaints. When they ask a question that causes you pause, take the time to pause and have a conversation about it.

Ask questions, and question answers

How do you get that conversation going? The simplest way is: ask questions. If a child says that something you did wasn’t fair, ask what fairness is. Or whether it’s your job to make things fair. The goal is to get them to think the problem through, so don’t accept ‘I don’t know’ as a show-stopping answer. Instead say: ‘I’m not sure either, let’s think about it together.’

Asking questions is a great way to respond to kids’ complaints and curiosities. But you can also ask questions out of the blue any time there’s a topic you want to talk about with kids. ‘Why is lying wrong?’ I asked mine one day at dinner. And then we had a great conversation about when we’re required to tell others the truth – and when it’s OK to fudge it a bit – or just to lie, outright.

You can ask about small issues or even silly ones. (‘Is cereal a soup?’ was a big hit in my house). But it’s worth asking about bigger questions, too. You can help your child think through questions about about sex and gender. Ask what boys and girls are, why people treat them differently, and whether that’s fair. You can help them think about what makes a person good. Or what makes a life good. You just have to ask.

Chances are they’ll surprise you with their answers. But don’t take them at face value. To get kids to think really deeply, you have to do more than ask questions. You have to question their answers. If a kid says that lying is wrong because you’re tricking people, ask whether they can think of times when it’s OK to trick someone. Then ask how you can tell the difference between the times that it’s OK to trick someone and the times that it’s not.

The goal is to get kids to make arguments – to defend their views – and to question them too. And asking questions is the most powerful tool in your kit.

Do philosophy, don’t teach

I remember when Rex was seven and he was interested in the size of the Universe. He wanted to know how big it was. I didn’t know, so he tried to work it out himself. One day, he told me that he’d figured out it was infinite.

‘Why do you say that?’ I asked.

‘Well, imagine that you took a spaceship all the way to the edge of the Universe. And then you punch right at the edge. Your hand has to go somewhere, right?’

‘What if it just stopped?’ I asked.

‘Well, then there’d be something stopping it,’ Rex said. ‘So you wouldn’t be at the edge yet!’

That’s a famous argument. It was endorsed by the ancient Greek philosopher Archytas, the Roman poet Lucretius, and no less a physicist than Isaac Newton. Rex hadn’t heard of any of these guys though. He just thought through something he found puzzling, and arrived at the same argument they did. (It took people a long time to figure out the argument doesn’t work. As I explained to Rex, finite spaces don’t always have edges: imagine you’re an ant, walking on the surface of a balloon – you can walk forever without hitting an edge because the surface folds back on itself.)

Jana Mohr Lone directs the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) in Seattle. Like Matthews, she visits schools to talk to kids about philosophy. But she’s clear: she’s not teaching them philosophy. Rather, she’s doing philosophy with them.

Matthews, too, argued that philosophical conversations with kids present opportunities for collaboration. If a child asks you a straightforward question about science or history, chances are you know the answer better than she does, so you’ll play the role of teacher. But if a kid asks whether God exists, or what the point of life is, or whether the Universe is infinite, chances are you aren’t in a better position to answer than she is. And that means you can enquire together.

Grownups and kids bring different talents to these conversations. Kids are creative and full of questions. Grownups are more careful thinkers, and they know more about the world too. But you want a child to know that you value her views – and that you want to think with her. And that requires that you treat your own ideas the same way you treat a kid’s – as things that can be questioned.

It’s important to ask questions in the right spirit, though. You shouldn’t be trying to show up a child, or catch them out in a mistake, even if you are asking questions that challenge their views. The goal is to get the right answer together or, at the least, deepen your understanding.

Push, but not too hard

To help kids develop as thinkers, you have to push them a bit. That’s why you need to question their answers. If their first answer is always good enough, they won’t get in the habit of thinking deeply.

But you don’t want to push kids too hard. If you want to sustain children’s interest in philosophy, it has to be fun. So pick your topics and your moments carefully. Try to respond to their interests. And if they just aren’t into a conversation, don’t insist on it, or insist that it go on too long.

But do come back to it, if you think it’s an important conversation to have. In our house, we’ve found that bedtime is often the best time for deep conversations. The house is quieter and there are fewer distractions when the kids are tucked in. They’re also trying to extend the day, so they’re up for talking out a problem. At bedtime you can think back on the day – or the week – and raise any issue that seemed worth having a conversation about.

Or maybe the best time will turn out to be dinner. Or while you are taking a walk. Look for the moments when children are open to conversation and save up topics to raise. And recognise that most of these conversations will be short. Little kids aren’t up for seminars. But if you revisit the topics that engage them most, you’ll find that the conversations add up over time and often yield surprising insights – for you and them.

Keep going

Little kids are naturally drawn to philosophy. But older kids’ attention is often elsewhere. Still, it’s easy to prompt philosophical conversations with older children. It’s best to come at it obliquely. Now my boys are a little older, instead of asking them a question directly, I’ll often tell them about a conversation I had with someone else and ask their view on it. They are more likely to engage if it feels like I’m asking for their help, rather than giving them a quiz.

Older kids also like to learn about what’s happening in the world, so the news makes a great springboard to philosophical conversation. You can ask: ‘Are there ever good reasons to start a war?’ Or: ‘What’s a fair way for the world to share the costs of the climate crisis?’

If you’ve got particular topics you want to explore, or you want a more structured activity, PLATO has a terrific toolkit, filled with philosophical games and activities. You can search by grade level and topic. Some are super simple. Serve a fruit and ask whether it’s a dessert. (Then follow up: why, or why not? Is anything that’s served after a meal a dessert? Or only if it’s sweet? Can we have dessert before our meal?) But many of the games are more involved. One of my favourites is a boardgame called Difference, which is designed to prompt conversations about inequality and fairness. Some of the more involved games may work best in a classroom setting, but the toolkit is a rich resource for parents, too.

Key points – How to do philosophy with kids

  1. Children are natural philosophers. They ask about everything, and they’re not afraid of getting things wrong.
  2. It’s worth supporting their philosophical instincts. It helps them to think deeply about weighty issues. And, without your encouragement, kids’ spontaneous excursions into philosophy start to slow down around age eight or nine.
  3. Follow the leader. The first step is simply to notice when a kid has a philosophical question.
  4. Ask questions, and question answers. The goal is to get kids to make arguments – to defend their views – and to question them, too.
  5. Do philosophy, don’t teach. Grownups and kids bring different talents to these conversations, and many philosophical conversations will present you with opportunities for collaboration.
  6. Push, but not too hard. If you want to sustain kids’ interest in philosophy, it has to be fun. So pick your topics and your moments carefully.
  7. Keep going. As your kids get older, you’ll need to come at things a little obliquely. There are some terrific games and activities to help with this.

Why it matters

Philosophy through literature

Reading with kids is another great way to start philosophical conversations with them. The Prindle Institute for Ethics in Indiana has a website called Teaching Children Philosophy with modules on many of the most common picture books. It introduces parents to the philosophical issues raised in the stories, and provides suggested questions you might ask kids as you read.

I love to read Leo Lionni’s Frederick (1967) with young kids. It tells the story of mice who are gathering food for winter. But one mouse – Frederick – isn’t helping. Instead, he says he’s gathering colours and words. When winter comes and the food stores start to run low, the other mice ask Frederick about the provisions he gathered. He reminds them of the beautiful colours they see in other seasons, and the mice feel a bit warmer. Then he recites a poem he composed, which takes their minds off their misery.

The book presents many topics for conversation. Was Frederick working when he wrote the poem? What is work? What’s the value of a poem? Is it fair that Frederick didn’t help gather food? Could poems be as valuable as food? Little kids always have a lot to say about all of these questions.

Another book I love to read is Michelle Knudsen’s Library Lion (2006). A lion visits the library, which is weird – and scary – but the librarian says he can stay if he follows the rules. He becomes a beloved fixture until, one day, the librarian falls and breaks a bone. The lion runs to get help, but he can’t get the assistant librarian to pay attention. So he roars, as loudly as he can – and in doing so, breaks the most sacred rule in a library: talk quietly. Realising what he’s done, the lion banishes himself from the library.

Again, the book raises lots of philosophical questions. Why do we need rules? What makes a good rule? When is it OK to break rules? And who decides when it’s OK to break rules? I’ve never met kids who aren’t eager to discuss these issues as they read the story.

Older kids can read philosophy themselves. For elementary school-age kids, the books in the series Really Really Big Questions – including the volume For Daring Thinkers (2022) by the philosopher and Aeon+Psyche author Stephen Law – provide fun introductions to lots of philosophical questions. Another book, The Complete Philosophy Files (2011), also by Law, will take middle-grade kids (age nine to 12) much deeper, but still keep them entertained. When I was in high school, I loved There Are Two Errors in the the Title of This Book (1992) by Robert M Martin, a rich source of puzzles and paradoxes, and now in its third revised and expanded edition (2011).

Links & books

My book Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids (2022) explores questions about metaphysics and morality with the help of my children, Rex and Hank. It’s a fun and funny introduction to philosophy – and a plea to see kids as the serious thinkers they are.

Gareth Matthews’s books Philosophy and the Young Child (1980) and Dialogues with Children (1984) collect many of his philosophical conversation with kids, and defend the idea that children have an aptitude for philosophy. His book The Philosophy of Childhood (1994) treats children as an object of philosophical exploration.

Jana Mohr Lone’s book Seen and Not Heard: Why Children’s Voices Matter (2021) makes a case for listening to – and learning from – kids.

The website Teaching Children Philosophy from the Prindle Institute for Ethics in Indiana has teaching modules for many common picture books. It provides an overview of the philosophical questions each book raises, and suggests questions you can ask as you read.

The website of the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) has teaching modules for picture books, lesson plans for teachers, and advice for starting philosophy programmes in schools. PLATO also runs workshops for teachers and parents.

The video series Wireless Philosophy (Wi-Phi for short), available on YouTube, is a terrific resource for older kids. It’s full of short videos (5-7 minutes apiece) that cover questions in philosophy. Sometimes, Rex and I pick one to watch together, so we can talk about it as we watch.

You can also mine movies and shows for philosophical questions. You don’t need a guide in order to do it. Just see what questions occur to you as you watch, and ask your kids about them. But if you want more support, the website The Philosophy has a list of famous films that raise philosophical questions – and a guide to the questions each raises. Many of the films are terrific (The Matrix, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Memento). So grab some popcorn, and schedule your very own film and philosophy night!