Starting them young

Our early experiments in preschool philosophy have been embraced by a local kindergarten.

In weekly philosophy sessions, four- and five-year-olds are learning how to think deeply about big questions, how to articulate their thoughts more clearly, and how to challenge and refine their own thinking. They’re also learning how to think together, by building on each other’s ideas and disagreeing respectfully. These valuable life skills are helping the children develop more confidence in the validity of their beliefs, while remaining free to change their minds whenever they so choose.

Over the past six weeks, a small group of eager kids at Melbourne’s Flemington Childcare Co-op have been enjoying thoughtful and impassioned discussions, as well as philosophically-themed art-making and games.

session-1-banner-image Illustration by Chris Haughton

Our first workshop – based on Chris Haughton’s picture book Oh No, George – explored ethics and free will (no less!) We considered questions like: Have you ever wanted to be good, but then been naughty anyway? What stops us from being good all the time? Do we sometimes want two different things at the same time? Can we control ourselves, or do we need other people to control us?

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Our second workshop, on the theme of ‘other minds’, considered animal consciousness and the possibility of alien life. We listened to whale-song, simulated space travel, launched a space capsule, and speculated about how we might empathise and communicate with beings very different from ourselves.

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Illustrations by Yelena Bryksenkova

Our third workshop looked at what constitutes happiness and a good life, themes that we explored through the motif of zoos. A short animation prompted the kids to wonder about the diverse experiences of animals cared for in captivity. The kids also imagined a ‘human zoo’ in which people in enclosures are visited by other animals – a thought experiment that inspired some wonderful artwork.

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Illustrations by Amie Bolissian

Our fourth workshop investigated reality and imagination, and how we can know whether something is real. We looked at examples like the platypus (a wildly improbable creature, once considered too strange to be real), as well as imaginary creatures like the unicorn, mermaid and Loch Ness monster. The kids had a spirited discussion about whether each of these is real, and what it would take to prove it one way or the other. They also crafted their own ‘cryptids’, or imaginary creatures – and learned to distinguish between creatures of myth and creatures ‘just made up on the spot’. (“Mermaids are real; I know because I’ve heard about how they sing to the sailors and make them crash into rocks.” “I don’t agree. I think mermaids aren’t real because there’s no such thing – you just made that up on the spot!” “I did not!”)

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Our fifth workshop got kids thinking about the diverse places that people call home. From slums to kings’ castles; from igloos and yurts to high-rise towers and capsule hotels; from earthen huts to houses made entirely of glass; from tents and houseboats to treehouses and lighthouses – we looked and we wondered: “Could I call this home?” The kids even came up with their own set of criteria for what it takes to feel at home: being close to friends and family, having enough space to play, being safe from thieves, and having privacy. (What’s privacy? “It’s what you need when you go to the toilet.” And how do you get privacy? “You need to close the door.”)

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Can you find the camouflaged animal in each photo?

Our sixth workshop addressed the theme of ‘fitting in’. We studied photos of animals camouflaged in their environments, and considered what benefits camouflage affords. We explored reasons why people may want to blend in with their physical or social environments (such as playing hide-and-seek, feeling shy, being a spy, or seeking a sense of belonging), and conversely why people may wish to stand out as different or unique. We considered behavioural as well as physical similarities and differences. We then enquired into whether people fit in better in the bush or in the city, and whether in fact we are part of nature. This inclined the children to wonder whether people are actually animals. (Said a five-year-old: “Yes, we’re animals, because a long time ago there were fish and then sort of otters, and then chimpanzees, and we came from that.” A four-year-old replied: “Well, I’m not an animal!” “Yes you are.” “Am not!”)

Over the weeks, despite occasional lapses into simple contradiction (“’Tis so!” “’Tis not!”), the children have begun to express themselves in more reasoned ways, increasingly coming out with phrases like “I agree with you because…”

I’ve also noticed them shift away from addressing me (the facilitator) alone, towards engaging each other in dialogue. In the coming weeks, I’ll be encouraging each of the children to focus on improving the relevance of their contributions and developing greater consistency in their viewpoints.

The Philosophy Club’s expansion to the preschool sector has also been a learning experience for me. There’s no doubt that the experience of working with young children has extended my skills as a facilitator and workshop producer. While I routinely make use of multimedia stimuli in my philosophy workshops, I’ve been motivated to find and create more than the usual number and diversity of stimuli, in order to hold the attention of these very small children and keep them critically and creatively engaged for around 45 – 60 minutes every Friday afternoon.

All things considered, it’s been a very promising start! Many thanks to Daniela Kavoukas, Chris Tan and other educators at the Flemington Childcare Co-op for supporting The Philosophy Club’s first foray into preschool philosophy.

aliki

Illustration by Aliki

The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children, professional development for teachers, and training for facilitators in the art of collaborative philosophical enquiry.

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