Big Ideas for Little Thinkers: Demystifying Philosophy for Kids
Updated: Feb 26
Do Kids Like Asking Questions?
Anyone that’s spent time around kids that talk knows they love to ask questions and have conversations about their ideas. Kids are, by nature, curious and questioning. This makes them natural philosophers.
But what is philosophy? Isn’t Philosophy—the word with a big P—only taught at expensive, fancy schools? Isn’t Philosophy something that’s hard? To that I have one answer: It doesn’t need to be. The core of philosophy revolves around being able to ask questions and use reasoning— ideas from experience, examples, experiments — to answer those questions. Those questions can be as simple or complex as you like: What is beauty? What is truth? What is fairness? What is justice? How do I know what I know? What does it mean to be alive? If we were "Doing Philosophy" those questions would fall under aesthetics, epistemology, ethics, and ontology.
But we don't need big words to answer big questions. We do need examples to help frame the question and a discussion. This is where books for kids are useful. They're perfect because they are short, great for introducing concepts, and are specific enough that they can be used to guide a discussion.
What's Philosophy for Children?
Philosophy for Children (shortened to P4C or P4K) is a movement that’s been around since the 1960s and began with Matthew Lipman. There are programs in the UK to promote its teaching, and programs in the US. There’s also data around its methodology showing that it helps kids improve test scores. It can be summarized more simply as reading stories and leading discussions around big ideas with little kids. It is not giving children lectures about philosophy movements or specific philosophers.
So, those are the basics, but the more important question is why now? What does this have to offer at this moment? We’re living through a pandemic. We’re surrounded by big (BIG!) questions about the world and how we should move forward in it. Reasoning skills are needed. P4C as a basic framework is endlessly useful and adaptable in this moment for all the big issues, big ideas, big problems.
Big Ideas for Little Thinkers
Big ideas can be scary. Big words can scare adults, who may not know exactly what they mean or think they’re associated with certain ideas that they may or may not really know much about. But most big ideas start small and many can be quite useful if carefully developed.
Take for example the book The Giving Tree. It’s a classic about a boy and a tree that gives him everything. But what can it help us, and kids, understand about giving—or taking— too much from our environment? Or take the book True Story of the Three Little Pigs. What can we learn from shifting our perspective from the side of the little pigs to that of the wolf? How can such a story gently open up important conversations around fairness and justice?
I believe that just about anyone can do this with children and a few good books. I think learning how to do this well in group settings could be especially impactful for teachers, librarians, and people who spend their days with kid(s). I believe this is the moment to gently open our ears and eyes to the new and the possible in the world around us and that kids and books are the perfect companions on this journey.
How do I do this with kids?
Simply put, pick up a book. Look it over. Does it have a ‘big idea’ at its center that you can identify? Break that idea into smaller pieces and aim to create five questions. Five questions is plenty to start and sustain a discussion with children. The classic ‘W’ questions are a great start: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How?
Ideally, the questions should be asked after reading the book and should start with an example from the book. In the book Lily the Unicorn by Dallas Clayton, Lily and Penguin like different things but are still friends. How are they different? How are they the same? How do they learn to get along? Those three simple questions—and more if you like— could easily be used to talk about sibling rivalry, playground tensions, how to make new friends, and much more. But the goal is to start simple and to let the child or children bring you their ideas and observations. You are a guide helping to ‘get at’ the big ideas, the big questions.
Am I Beautiful or Fancy?
So, is this Philosophy for Children (P4C)? My ideas use that framework as well as my formal education, student mentoring, and teaching experiences, but my sense is that using the word "Philosophy" might make the idea more intimidating to adults than it needs to be. The P4C movement is just that—a movement—and it is developing in the US and globally in many communities. I believe the framework of P4C: reading a picture book, asking mindful questions, and creating a space for young children to share their ideas, has tremendous potential to help cultivate awareness around ‘big’ ideas and lay the groundwork for better reasoning and thinking skills.
Here's a story that might help! When my daughter started playing dress up she would ask me if she was beautiful. I didn't like the question, so I changed the words. Now I tell her she is always beautiful—as all people are—but when she plays dress up she's being fancy. So, if you want to be fancy about it—or make kids marvel and smile at 'big words'—you can call it Philosophy for Children, but it's really just reasoning for kids. Or big ideas for little thinkers...!
Heidi Mason is an artist who has spent over a decade working as an independent marketing consultant + strategist. She holds a MA in Visual & Critical Studies from The Art Institute of Chicago and a BA in Philosophy from Mount Holyoke College, where she trained and mentored students in Philosophy for Children (P4C).