Kids are natural philosophers
Kids in the "Why?" stage can ask questions 50 times per day. Or per hour. Which can drive you nuts - sometimes it seems that they're not really asking, in order to know. It can seem frivolous, like they're just playing.
They are playing, but it isn't frivolous. They are learning logic and morals, developing their minds by exercising them. We call it the "Why?" stage but they don't just ask "Why?." They challenge answers, posit their own, contradict, try new ideas on for size, combine ideas to see how they fit together and where they lead, and turn answers into more questions. They don't hesitate to seem goofy, ask dumb-sounding questions, or say things that sound absurd or outrageous. They may question things at such a basic level that you're stumped. Or just don't understand what they're asking. They keep all this up far beyond where a normal adult would quit.
When grownups do these very things, we call it "philosophy." It's not just a cliché - it's really true: kids are natural philosophers.
In the Young Philosophers workshop, kids aged approximately 8-9 read children's books, and engage in philosophical discourse. Asking all those tricky questions, debating, challenging, exploring. Learning by doing, maybe even "getting it out of their systems."
This is not a new invention - there is a model that works. Students of Dr. Thomas E. Wartenberg (professor at Mount Holyoke College) teach philosophy to elementary school children, using children's literature. A story like Dragons and Giants from the Frog and Toad series is followed by discussion-sparking questions, like these:
- Does doing something that's dangerous show that you are brave?
- What if someone makes you do it?
- What if you're doing something dangerous and you don't know it's dangerous?
- Does someone have to tell you?
- How can other people tell when you are being brave?
- Is it possible that you might think you are brave and be wrong?
- Can other people be wrong if they think that you were not
- Was Toad brave even though he was shaking with fear?
We do not mechanically work through this list, question by question, until it ends. Rather, the questions are used as jumping-off points. Leaders guide the discussion, keeping things (more or less!) on track and oriented toward the philosophical issues. Kids explore the philosophical issue embodied in the story. In Dragons and Giants the specific topic is bravery, the more general topic is Aristotelian virtue, and the philosophical branch is ethics. For other branches, such as epistemology, the questions would be different, like:
Morris thinks that he knows that the cow is a moose.
- Do you agree with Morris, that he knows that the cow is a moose?
- Morris has reasons. Are they good reasons? Is there more to knowledge than having reasons for a belief?
- Can you know something if it's untrue, or wrong?
The goal is not to achieve consensus, nor to guide kids to the "correct" answer, but that the children will
- learn philosophical concepts at an age-appropriate level, and
- learn to participate in a philosophical discussion.
Wartenberg's college students lead his groups; we also enlist homeschooled teens, young adults, and parents. I'm present at all times but I endeavor to train and coach the leaders so they can lead without me.