philosophy is everywhere

IMG_3536Not only can we do philosophy with very young children but we must do it for it is the evidence that we are listening and respecting children’s dialogues.

I visited Maaike Lahaise, the Director of skrubbelund barnehage (scrubland preschool), a government owned, Reggio Emilia inspired centre of 70 children and 18 adults with the children in three groups – 1-3 years, 3 to 4 years and 5.  Maaike ‘caught the passion’ for philosophy after seeing it in action and has now pioneered this in the centre where she is responsible not only for the centre but also for those children who will start formal school within a year.

I was so warmly welcomed with hellos, high 5’s and a smattering of English words from her class of 4 to 5 year olds. A small group of girls delegated themselves as my minders – one to carry the notebook, one the pen and one my camera and off we went to explore their outdoor area.

Photo by Charlie (4) with Margaret and Maikke and two friends.Of particular note was the amazing confidence the children had with me, the stranger who could not speak, and how quickly they accommodated me. Charlie (4) offered to take my photo with two of my new friends.

We are a family, said Maaike, and the children are free to go into any space including the teacher’s spaces.

Prior to the philosophy lesson, we all sat together to get to know each other and shared a meal – homemade bread, cheeses, meats, spreads water and milk.

IMG_3525M:          Kate, do you want to say something before we eat?

K:          Yes. I want to say thank you for letting me visit, thank you for the food and thank you for being so friendly.

M:          Does anyone else want to say something?

C:          That’s what we do at home but we talk about Jesus too.

And so a conversation began even before the bread was broken and I realised we were in a community of inquiry.

C:                   Hmmm this looks good so it must taste good

M:                   Can something look good and not taste good?

C:                   No. Everything looks bad if I’ve not tasted it, but when I know what it tastes like then it looks good.

M:                  Is there a difference between food that looks good and food that looks bad?

C:                  Yes something might look good but taste bad

M:                 Can you give me an example?

C:                  Well the food the Sami people eat looks bad like blood pancakes but they taste good. I saw that in a video.

At this point the milk ran out and Maiike asked a child if he could get another carton.

IMG_3526C:                   No. Someone else can get it.

M:                   Are you not able to get it or don’t you want to get it? 

C:                   I have a sore leg

M:                   Does Benjamin not want to get it or he can’t get it? 

More discussion and as most agreed that he didn’t want to get it but one child.  Then a child who had not spoken aloud said,

C:                  But if he does have a bad leg then he can’t get it.


M:                   Okay everyone; in five minutes we can go to have a group chat. Is that a long time or a short time?

And so the discussion continued – even before we had commenced the formal ‘philosophy lesson’.

I considered the point often made by teachers that there is no ‘time’ to do philosophy but that is when philosophy is viewed as a ‘subject’. With young children it is a particular style of conversation – a collaborative conversation between children guided by teachers. To do this, teachers need support on how to recognise the philosophic moves that Maaike does and how to extend the dialogue by giving children practice in thinking skills (giving reasons, giving examples, counter examples, suggestions, conclusions, examples).

It’s actually very simple said Maaike, we must listen to the children. I am a learner too and I learn much from engaging in dialogue with them.

I recalled reading a statement by another outstanding early years practitioner, Sara Stanley in But Why.

You do not have to be a ‘super teacher’ to do P4C – Philosophy for children. You only have to be prepared to value what children have to say, to respect the questions they ask and to provide them with opportunities to develop their thinking. 

IMG_3534After lunch (which the children cleared up)  we went into an adjacent room used for shared talk and drama. Maaike told the children they were going to see a film about animals.  At the first frame one child commented.

C:  But we must have a film in English so Kate can understand it – we know Norwegian and a little English but she knows no Norwegian only English

And from this a discussion began on how we communicate, whether animals can talk to each other, whether animals can they talk at all, whether we could learn an animal language,  whether parrots are really talking? and so it went on again. All in Norwegian but I was able to be understood because children use a variety of ways to communicate if you just listen and watch.

What I have taken away is that

  • Philosophy is everywhere, and even children as young as two can engage in it. I recall a recent conversation by Pip, just two, when asked what should they do next. We have to go to the movies Daddy because the red teddy said so (reason giving) and she will be sad if we don’t.
  • Philosophy is not difficult if you listen to children and are trained to make the philosophic moves through questioning.

But is it Philosophy?

I would say yes because Philosophy is a method of thinking, a learned skill just like reading and writing.  Children have ideas and questions about contestable and abstract concepts and within the collaborative environment and with a skilled facilitator, they can explore them and deepen their understandings.


Sara Stanley, But Why? Developing Philosophic Thinking in the Classroom.

a universe of learning

Sara Stanley with the wild things

Here we were in Norwich, two grandmothers sitting on the floor opening match boxes holding miniatures – small stimuli that expand into big questions, discussions and ‘a universe of learning’. That quote came from Charlie (4) when he was describing his ‘school for dragons’.

And what a universe of learning is happening at this nursery school in Norwich. Sara Stanley pioneered the Storytelling Curriculum for the Early Years which evolved into Philosophical Play.  Her work is based on 25 years of listening to children. She has scribed hundreds of conversations overheard when children play and noted the philosophic world that children live in.

Children use abstract concepts naturally  – good/bad, right/wrong, sharing/ownership, rights, proof, possibilities, revenge/love/hate, gender, rights/rules/justice/fairness/power,  friendship, trickery and possibilities from the time they have language. And from this Sara developed Concept Cards where children identity the philosophic concepts within their (and other) stories. It’s my turn (fairness) You’re not friend any more (friendship) Not now (time) No that toy is mine (ownership) You’re the baddy and I’ll be the goodie (good/bad). You’re not sharing (sharing).  Don’t scream at me. That’s not what friend do friendship). The fairy is here but she’s invisible (proof). That’s going to be impossible (possibilities). The dragon is going to get you back (revenge). Only girls can play this game (gender).  Sara then connects the children’s imagination and love of storytelling with philosophical inquiry. Her practice is continually evolving and I not only observed Sara in action but had time to theorise with her about her practice and ways to effectively train early childhood teachers. Her method, detailed in her two publications, is replicable.

Sara reading a story written by two year olds
Sara reading a story written by two year olds

On the day of my visit, Sara was giving a two hour session at a disadvantaged Nursery school in Norwich. She started by reading The Fire Monster written and illustrated by a group of two year olds from Reflections Nursery School in Worthing. The children spontaneously started discussing the book until a child suggested he’d seen a monster in the outdoor playground. Here Sara understood this was a philosophic move. She suggested we might go outside to see if we could find clues or proof that a monster was in the garden.

finding evidence of dragons
finding evidence of monsters

The high level of energy, engagement, collaboration and imaginative play went on for more than than an hour. Sara and her assistant scribed what they heard and what stories the children were telling them.  She always acknowledged the author of the story and some children double checked that she did this.

Sara recording Tegan's story
Sara recording Tegan’s story

The children returned inside and Sarah read the children’s stories back to the children.  New discussions started from these children’s texts. Would a monster rather be a monster or a human? Could you be a monster? Are all monsters bad monsters?

… we were fire monsters  too

I followed Tegan (4) who was highly active when it came to finding clues that a monster did live in the garden.  After a while she took chalk and drew her story and then later retold it to Sara who scribed it.   This is transcript of that story by Tegan (4) Tegan:  The monster had a lot of fire. I’m in the story. Ellie May and me. The fire monster killed us because we touched him  and we died. And when we woke up we were fire monsters too. But we blew out blue smoke.  Judy you can be in our story. Judy: No I’m making up my own story. I could go on and on about her methods but they are well described in her two books which I would highly recommend. Stanley, Sara, But Why – Teacher’s manual  – developing philosophical thinking in the classroom. Stanley, Sara, Why Think – Philosophical Play from 3-11