Big Ideas for Bigger Kids

an extension to the work of Tom Wartenberg and others

by Leo Heska

Introduction and background

I have a dream, and I seek help in the form of skilled assistance. I want to augment materials currently available, that support "doing philosophy" with children.

The Young Philosophers, a philosophy club for children which I have helped lead for 2 years, has been wonderful. The question "Can little kids 'get' philosophy?" is easily answered with a resounding "Yes!" just by observing one of our sessions.

We have greatly benefited from folks who, doing philosophy with children, have contributed how-to tips, guidelines and materials. As decades pass and the state of the art advances, * these contributions become less "airy," general, and theoretical, to more practically useful and down-to-earth.

A culmination of this occurred in 2009 with the publication of Thomas Wartenberg's Big Ideas for Little Kids. This pragmatic book, the best resource currently available, stands out in its completeness and hands-on, ready-to-go usefulness. Much like a good cookbook, it lays out in detail an easy-to-follow recipe for conducting a philosophical discussion with children. You simply:

  1. Read a children's book aloud to a group of kids.
  2. Pose "discussion-sparking" questions to them.
  3. Facilitate the ensuing philosophical discussion.

The book very nicely explains step 3, how to facilitate. It also provides the discussion-sparking questions used in step 2.

Going beyond his book, Wartenberg also provides and maintains a web site offering dozens of "book modules" to be used in conjunction with dozens more children's books. Each module contains:

With a little practice, using these modules is easy. One doesn't need to be a philosopher, or even know philosophy - the modules are designed to be used by facilitators with no philosophical training or background. Just get some kids, modules, and books, and try it out.

That's what I and my fellow leaders did, pretty much on a lark. Two years later, we are still at it, and to date, we've used well over 50 of the existing modules, provided by Wartenberg and his collaborators (typically, his students).

Now, a funny thing happens to kids after two years - they grow up! Not completely of course - two years is just two years - but an 8-year-old then is 10 years old now. And, though even grownups can use a "little kids' book" as springboards for philosophical discussion and exploration, bigger kids tend to prefer literature more suited to their age.

A useful next step

The excellent modules that Wartenberg and his fellows have created, support steps 2 and 3 of the easy "1-2-3" process I mentioned, but not step 1; extant modules are largely based on copyrighted books. Obtaining these is easy in affluent American communities with good public libraries, but many people lack such easy access.

I would like to create modules based on books or stories that are:

I propose an effort which I have (with Tom Wartenberg's kind permission) titled "Big Ideas for Bigger Kids:"

  1. Identify and obtain out-of-copyright works or stories that contain philosophical themes.
  2. For each work, produce a module identical in form and nature to Wartenberg's book modules.
  3. Make the modules and the works themselves freely available under Creative Commons copyright.

The problem to be solved, the effort to be carried out

Creating story modules takes significant effort - approximately 5 to 10 hours per module.

In the course of a typical academic year I meet with my Young Philosophers approximately 33 times. Initially I would like to come up with 50 story modules. That is going to take a lot of work (and I personally need at least a pretty good starter set before Fall 2014).

How the new, additional modules will be used

Firstly, I plan to use them in my own Young Philosophers group.

Secondly, these modules and the corresponding works will be available under appropriate Creative Commons license.

Once this corpus or set of "story modules" is complete, anyone who wants to do philosophy with children, will have a complete set of supporting materials available to them, free. Just add kids, place, effort, skill, and love of children.

*Piaget claimed that younger children, lacking the capability for abstract thinking, can think only "concretely." Margaret Donaldson, who knew Piaget and worked/studied in his institute, pointed out in her 1978 book Children's Minds that (and how) Piaget was mistaken in this. Her wonderful book provides valuable general suggestions and observations, but no hands-on practical support material. Gareth Matthews wrote important works, including his 1980 book Philosophy and the Young Child. Matthew Lipman wrote novels for children containing philosophical points, with accompanying "how-to" materials. David White's Philososphy for Kids and a sequel consist largely of practical materials. Michael Pritchard's 1996 book Reasonable Children, precursing Wartenberg, gave specific examples of questions one could ask of children to spark philosophical discussion of specific children's books (such as the Frog and Toad series).