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Education Students Bring Philosophy to Children

Philosophy for kids? Ursinus education students tapped into youngsters’ natural curiosity on a recent Saturday morning, supported by a Pericles Civic Engagement grant.

Students in Associate Professor of Education Stephanie Mackler’s class on alternative education movements created a course for children in the Ursinus community as young as age 2, and up to age 11. Philosophy for children, an international movement with centers at Montclair State University and the University of Washington, among other locations, aims to develop reasoning skills in children with the goal of honing these skills to better contribute to democracy.

“Philosophy is a discourse that is generally reserved for higher education studies,” says Ursinus student Samantha Ha ’16. “However, the philosophy for kids movement encapsulates the idea that children have incredible capacities to philosophize as well, even if it is not widely recognized as such.”

About 15 young would-be philosophizers in age-related groups discussed heady topics such as friendship, fairness and bravery. A concurrent group for parents, also run by the Ursinus students, focused on facilitating philosophical discussion with children.

Students leading the 2-to-4-year-olds read Margaret Wise Brown’s The Important Book to discuss the metaphysical aspects of what defines something, such as discussing whether a daisy is important because it is white or because bees like it, Mackler explains.  

The ages 5-to-8 group took on courage and bravery, and the oldest group discussed friendship, including “What makes someone your friend?” and “Can you be friends with someone even if you argue with them?” The group also discussed whether a child can be friends with his/her parents.

This group made an impact on Ha. “After discussion, they each drew a picture or defined friendship visually, and they shared their work with the group,” she says. “I was extraordinarily impressed by one girl who drew a picture of a tree to represent the growth of friendship. She demonstrated an ability to speak eloquently and reflect deeply on difficult concepts. She showed me that philosophy can be an opportune avenue for children to think deeply, ask questions, and express themselves clearly.” Ha, a biology major and ethics minor, is now considering pursuing philosophy of education studies.  

The idea behind the course, and the movement, adds Mackler, is to introduce children to the thinking and reasoning skills they need to answer the questions they already naturally ask. “Children are natural philosophers, asking ‘why?’ from a very young,” she says.” We can foster their natural sense of wonder at the world by giving them the tools to develop their ideas and arguments in community. If you stop and listen, you’ll notice that children often ask questions about fairness, death, truth, and God. They ask philosophical questions, but many adults either don’t hear the questions or don’t know how to respond. The philosophy for children movement recognizes children’s natural tendency to ask the big life questions and further cultivates it.”