Parents often ask us if we can recommend any books or materials to help them engage their children in philosophical dialogue at home. As it happens, most material specifically designed for philosophical dialogue with kids is intended for a group and requires some preparation on the facilitator’s part. Cruelty Bites, the first in the Wonder Ponder Visual Philosophy for Children series, breaks the mould with an entirely new kind of stimulus that can be used at the dinner table as effectively as in the classroom.
The heart of Cruelty Bites is a boxed set of philosophically-themed cards, each with an illustration on one side and a series of related questions on the other. The illustrations present richly-detailed scenarios that are open to philosophical speculation. One such illustration presents a child strapped down in a laboratory while rats in lab coats poke and prod him. “No reaction at all to tickling?” the caption reads. “What about pinching very hard? Any reaction there?” In the background, we can see a couple of children in a cage, and another rat in a lab coat handing a lollipop to a caged girl, bringing a smile to her face.
This whimsically-illustrated inversion of reality gives rise to a set of accompanying questions which prompt us to consider the many ethical quandaries around animal testing:
“Can something be cruel but still be OK to do?”
“What do you think the rat is doing with the boy? Is it being cruel?”
“Are some lives worth more than others?”
“Human scientists experiment with animals to test and discover things that may help humans live longer or better. Is that cruel?”
“Is it nice of the scientist rat in the background to give the children lollipops?”
The questions are not presented in a prescribed order. Rather, and in keeping with the overall spirit of the package, the questions are scattered across the card in an attractively random arrangement. This encourages a certain freedom in exploring the issues. Children can select a question that grabs them, raise the question, discuss it or just contemplate an answer and, when they are ready, move on to another question. Each card has at least one basic comprehension question suitable for the youngest little philosophers, and several conceptually challenging questions to pique the interest of even the most sophisticated thinkers in the household.
There are 14 scenarios in the box, and although the theme of cruelty may seem limited at first glance, it doesn’t take long to realise that each card alone can trigger an hours-long discussion. Collectively, the cards embrace a wealth of ideas including bullying, moral authority, animal rights, errors of commission and errors of omission, empathy, instincts and power relations.
Cruelty Bites encourages us to play with ideas in any number of ways. Wonder Ponder’s co-founder and author, Ellen Duthie makes some suggestions on the ‘Ideas for wonderpondering’ card, such as asking yourself the same question from the perspectives of different characters in the pictures. This turns the cards into an excellent resource for exploring empathy and alternative points of view. Another suggestion is for children to use the cards as a basis for interviewing people in their community with whom they may not otherwise have common interests. Using the cards to spark discussions with grandparents, baby-sitters and unsuspecting shop-keepers, children can engage in meaningful inter-generational dialogues in which adults may find themselves as perplexed as their young interviewers.
However, the suggestions in the box don’t begin to exhaust the possible ways of utilising these cards. They offer an excellent alternative to ‘I Spy’ or ’10 Green Bottles’ on road-trips. Ask your little philosopher to describe the scenario of their choice, and then let them lead the discussion by reading out their choice of questions. Cards can also be used as time-efficient alternatives to the storybook stimuli traditionally used in communities of philosophical enquiry, or as a way of generating interest in ethical questions at the beginning of a learning unit in the classroom.
Everything about the visual design of Cruelty Bites is appealing, from the minimal but vivid colour palette to the playful typography. Daniela Martagón’s lively, naive illustrations effortlessly evoke a child’s point of view without sacrificing conceptual clarity. Her style infuses an otherwise weighty theme with whimsy and humour. Ellen Duthie’s text is clear and concise, bringing abstract concepts within the grasp of young minds.
Text and image are interwoven in a way that encourages continued exploration. For instance, an image portrays a girl being pushed and pulled around by some schoolyard bullies, her basket of sweets hurled to the ground. A question on the back asks “What is worse, the pulling or the stealing?” I had to return to the image to notice the previously overlooked detail of a girl stealthily pinching a sweet from the ground.
A brief thematic guide is included to help you plumb the depths of each enquiry, along with a Where’s Wally-style poster of acts cruel and kind for further reflection. The package is capped off by three blank cards on which children can draw scenarios of their own imagining and compose their own questions for investigation.
The set is accompanied by a website which promises further resources, articles and an opportunity to share your own reflections on the theme. Themes for future Wonder Ponder releases include personal identity, freedom, happiness and the meaning of life. Given the visual, tactile and intellectual magnetism of Cruelty Bites, we’re looking forward collecting them all.
The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children, and training for workshop facilitators. The Big Questions philosophy mentoring program is our flagship in-school program.