It could be said that children are probably at their most philosophical in their formative pre-school years. If you take Socrates’s provocation that “All I know is that I know nothing” then we see everything as new and puzzling. To a pre-school child the whole world is a new and strange place. A place where some things make perfect sense and other things absurd.
A world of inconsistency and challenges that they make sense of through play and experimentation, through trial and error both in role as a child and in the imaginary roles of heroes and villains.
Philosophy for children at this early stage of their lives is about awareness of the joys and challenges of life and the increasing awareness of their role in a variety of social and emotional contexts.
Every day poses philosophical dilemmas for our young children in their learning environments. They are exposed to philosophical concepts such as Freedom, Identity, Power, Jealousy, Courage, Friendship, Fear and Happiness. Why should we not feel as comfortable introducing these words as we do words such as triangle, red, scissors, floating or sinking?
When a child wonders why their best friend refuses to play or why someone else always seems to hijack their game we rush to sort it out, “Play nicely, share your toys, be kind to one another” but do we really expect the reasons why these conflicts happen to be solved so easily?
The reasons why conflict occurs will occur throughout life, not just in the context of school readiness but in life readiness.
We owe it to our children to give them time to explore such questions as; why do people fight? Why are some people always in charge?
Why can’t I play? What should I do when I am scared? and how do I know what is right or wrong?
The stories told through child and adult initiated play provides the vehicle to explore what it means to be truly human.
Philosophy for children is about sharing voices, questions and thoughts. It is not about finding the answer but thinking of many possibilities and asking many more questions along the journey.
It is about allowing children to make connections with what they play and what they do, and the consequences and implications for a democratic classroom. A classroom based on trust, self-esteem, respect and a place where children are able to share and build on ideas.
Where does it start?
Philosophy for children starts with observation of play and the stories they tell. The role of the adult is as a facilitator. The facilitator brings evidence of interesting philosophical play and fantasy to everyone’s attention in a community of enquiry.
This enquiry takes place in a circle where democratic expectations of speaking and listening behaviours are negotiated.
The classroom stories may involve big bad wolves, naughty fairies, lonely dragons and many more goodies and baddies whose boundaries are blurred by imagination and the power of fantasy play.
These stories are shared, re-enacted and embellished with elements of further storytelling.
The facilitator asks questions to push for deeper thinking using their skill as a non-judgemental and curious wonderer. “I wonder what might happen if….?” “I wonder why that happened.” And most importantly “I wonder what people think about that.”
In addition picturebooks and play activities using toys and artefacts are used to stimulate philosophical thinking.
The children are given time to share the first thoughts that arise from the stimulus and then allowed the time they need to experience the concepts and ideas that they identify. This might involve taking responsibility for their own playdough blue kangaroo after sharing Where Are you Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clarke. Experiencing rules that Max might make up for his Wild Things (Where The Wild Things Are- Maurice Sendak) or creating their own versions of Little Red Riding Hood using puppets.
When the children have played they return to the enquiry circle to share and ask questions about their experiences with the facilitator focussing on the philosophical aspects.
The idea of using philosophical exploration in the EYFS is not yet another gimmick to implement. It is in fact just good practice. As Early Years practitioners we have to be aware of our own beliefs, our own sense of self and our connection with society both in a personal and professional capacity. Why do we do what we do and how does this impact on the children we teach?
When we listen critically to ourselves and others and understand what we think and why, we open doors to constant philosophical reflection.
Why as adults do we often stop asking the questions that children ask? As we experience life it is often easier not to challenge assumptions or the opinions of others. Maybe we assume our answers are enough whether we agree with others or not?
I believe we owe it to our children to grow with the confidence to share their voices in a respectful and safe environment and to consider ways to solve problems with care and critical consideration through the medium they are experts in; fantasy play and the thoughtful story worlds they create.