philosophy with four year olds

Steve in a Philosophy lesson with 4 year olds
Steve in a Philosophy session with 3 and 4 year olds

What an inspiring day. I observed Steve Hoggins, a philosopher and teacher with specialist training in Primary, Nursery and ESL facilitate three philosophy sessions with three and four year olds.  Steve works with The Philosophy Foundation ( a not-for-profit organisation that trains and delivers philosophy programs into schools. Steve is engaged by the Clyde Early Learning Centre in London to deliver three philosophy sessions (one hour per week) for 39 weeks to children in the centre.  The centre has approximately a hundred children from diverse multicultural backgrounds with the majority of children from homes where English is not the first language.

What I saw was impressive.

As we entered the centre, little people rushed over to high-five him. ‘Steve are we going to have Philosophy today?‘  He delivered the three 20-minute sessions in small rooms away from the general hubbub.  The classes are voluntary: one class had 7 girls and one boy, another around the same with 22 attending the final class. It is worth describing the lessons to show the range and scope of what was done with 3-4 year olds.

Lesson One: Who is Pen Man? (philosophic concept – identity)

Steve introduced four identical pencils and after a short game establishing procedures for discussion, he built a Pen Man using a ball for a head, a plastic lunch box for the body and the four pencils for the arms and legs. He used a Paddington Bear soft toy for the children to ask questions and often the child answered the question for PB as well.

Steve:            Ask Paddington Bear who is this?

Child:            Paddington Bear who is this?   He said it was a person.

Steve:            Does someone else want to ask Paddington Bear a question?

This went on in a democratic way and then Steve separated elements of the body and the children discussed a variety of propositions.

Steve:             (legs removed) Is it still the Pen Man if he has no legs?

Steve:             (head separated from the body) Where is the Pen Man now?

Steve:            If you have one leg (or one arm, or no head) are you still a Pen Man?

Lesson Two:   The Three Robbers (philosophic concept – good and bad)

In this lesson Steve read The Three Robbers and the children discussed if the robbers were good or bad. Steve then began improvising further on the story using two children as robbers and the remainder of the class making suggestions on what the robbers (children0 had stolen – my trousers, my shoes, my socks etc., my money? Was the robber who took the money bad? What about the one who took your trousers?

Lesson Three: The Teddy Bears’ Picnic (philosophic concept – sharing)

Steve improvised a story of two bears who went on a picnic. The children added to the story about what they might put in the Bear’s picnic basket. The story continued until  Steve pulled a cake (a round card)  from the bears picnic basket.

Steve:  The bears have decided it’s time to have the cake but there is only one cake. What can we do?

One girl decided that they should cut it up – and cut it into three uneven pieces. She gave one to the first bear and one to the other. The children were concerned that this didn’t seem okay.

Steve: How can we fix this up? Can we make it okay?

After a number of tries, they proposed that they could give it to the Hungry Penguin who was obviously a regularly character, and they then proceeded again to sort out the best way to divide the three unequal pieces.

The children were highly engaged in all sessions even in this hot humid room. There were many elements to the success. One was certainly Steve who had teaching techniques that I had never seen before. He used simple hand/eye movements to give instructions or deal with distractions. He had a very clear set of procedures about listening to each other. He acknowledged every contribution with a thank you (rather than the evaluative response that’s a good idea). He had a very clear idea about the purpose of the lesson. His questioning was highly inclusive but offered choice – ‘Do you want to change something or tell us more’?  The children called him Steve and he totally engaged with the children using a gentle modulated and sometimes singing voice when speaking.

After the sessions, I was invited back to the Worley’s home for a work dinner.  Pete, Emma, Steve and I went long into the night talking about Philosophy and young children. An unexpectedly rich experience. Oh I must mention Katie Worley (4) was there too.