Playdoh's Republic: Children as natural philosophers

Why were we born? Is life just a dream? What makes something wrong or right? Children often ask questions like these — sometimes to the exasperation of their parents. But children really want to know why the world is the way it is. And they want to know how we know. Maybe that's because they're open, curious and inquisitive — they're natural philosophers.
(Sean Howard)
Listen to the full episode53:59

Why were we born? Is life just a dream? What makes something wrong or right? Children often ask questions like these — sometimes to the exasperation of their parents. But children really want to know why the world is the way it is. And they want to know how we know. Maybe that's because they're open, curious and inquisitive — they're natural philosophers. In this episode of IDEAS, the Big Questions — and even some attempted answers. **This episode originally aired December 19, 2017.

Nine-year-old Scarlett Strongman struggles with the reality of people begging on the streets. 2:48

Socrates viewed philosophy not as an academic subject, but as a way of life — and that view suits children well.  Many children's storybooks, indeed many children, ask big questions. What does it mean to be good?  What is friendship? Why do we die? When given the space, children are astute questioners of the human condition. 

Some of the philosophical insights and questions the children in this episode share

(Sean Howard)

Jonathan: "I wonder if what we're living now is a dream. And when we die, we'll wake up".

Ella: "Humans are the most dangerous animals in our society".

Jana Mohr Lone says she doesn't "teach" philosophy to children. Instead, she "does" philosophy with children. The distinction is important.  As the director and founder of the Center for Philosophy for Children at the University of Washington, Lone says, "I'm really exploring with them philosophical questions that are of interest to them, not the history of philosophy from the ancient world." While there is a greater tradition of exposing children to philosophical thinking in Europe, Lone says there is suspicion of the activity in America where it tends to be seen as self-indulgent and virtually useless.  

Nuala: "Men have been in power... so, so long. And they use it to their advantage." 

Avery: "Why is a house called a 'house'?"  

Montreal-based philosophy theorist Natalie Fletcher has worked with many children across Canada and in Europe.  She thinks philosophy has a public relations problem. She says it's viewed as an esoteric, elitist subject that is far beyond the intellectual capability of children. "Some look at me as if I'm crazy. They say: you're doing philosophy with children... is that some kind of torture?"  

(Sean Howard)

Enye: "I think that philosophy is all about you, and all about how you see the world". 

Maya: "But it defines you. I think that it is a need, because you need to know who you are to become who you want to be". 

For centuries, children were seen as having no inner life at all. Their artwork was scribbles, their complaints were dismissed, they themselves seen but not heard. How the child was viewed began to change when the Romantic poets came along. William Blake and William Wordsworth introduced the idea of the child's imagination to the West. However, children remained under the control of adults, and were trapped by a binaristic categorizing of being either angels or demons. Natalie Fletcher thinks we have some PR problems around childhood as well. "If you think of children as deficient adults… so philosophy would be dangerous because it fosters critical thinking. Another school of thought is that children are innocent and we need to protect their innocence... and philosophy exposes them to questions that are too complex, and that we should let kids be kids."  

(Sean Howard)

Will: "I want to do five noteworthy things, so my existence isn't pointless." 

Audrey: "I wonder... do you have to have a purpose in life and live up to your potential?" 

Renowned child psychiatrist Robert Coles talks about the higher moral intelligence of children. He says that in daily life, children possess a "keen moral sensitivity to ideals and values." He adds: "no one teaches children sociology or psychology; yet children are constantly noticing who gets along with whom and why." Jana Mohr Lone thinks that we should be careful not to romanticize children, but she believes Robert Coles has opened the way for deeper conversations about the young.  

Ella: "Dying is important. Everyone should die. If you lived forever, life would be awkward, weird."

But how will doing philosophy with children fare in a 21st century wired, viral world? Jana Mohr Lone concedes we are living in a social experiment but still, she concludes: "I believe wondering about our experiences… is at the core of being a human being. And nurturing this core... provides children with greater depth and meaning in their lives." 


Guests in this episode:

  • Jana Mohr Lone is the director and founder of the Centre for Philosophy for Children at the University of Washington.
  • Natalie Fletcher is a theorist and practitioner of philosophy for children. She works with children from preschool up to university. Natalie runs a Montreal-based charity called Brila which does work across Canada and internationally.   
  • The following children participated in this program:  Audrey B.,  Audrey C., Avery, Cole, Ella, Ella S., Enye, Harrison, Imogen, Jonathan, Maya, Nuala, Sam, Scarlett, Sivan, and Will.


Further reading:

  • The Philosophical Child by Jana Mohr Lone, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015. 
  • Little Big Minds: Sharing Philosophy with Kids by Marietta McCarty, TarcherPerigee, 2006
  • The Complete Philosophy Files by Stephen Law, Orion Children's 2011.
  • The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettleheim, Random House, New York, 1976.  
  • The Magic Years: Understanding and Handling the Problems of Early Childhood by Selma H. Fraiberg, T. Berry Brazelton, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1996. 
  • The Kindness of Children by Vivian Gussin Payley, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts, 2000. 

Web Extra | Watch Philosophical Children from the University of Washington


Related websites:


**This episode was produced by Mary O'Connell.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.