I have been doing philosophy with nursery children for the last couple of years (having previously worked as a nursery teacher) and I have noticed some differences between doing philosophy with them and doing philosophy with older children, which I’d like to share.
Get their attention
The first significant difference is that nursery children aren’t regimented into a formal lesson structure. Their activities are child-centred and free flow. As an approach to education there is much to admire here but for our slot of 15 minutes we don’t have the luxury of waiting for opportunities to do philosophy. However, nursery children rarely sit down with the express purpose of following your lesson plan. To overcome this problem I have had to try and make ‘following my plan’ the most interesting thing for them to do. Partly this is achieved through your selection of resources, choice of games etc. but I think one key element is having an infectious enthusiasm yourself. Try stepping into nursery with a pillowcase thrown over your shoulder, a cardboard crown on your head and proclaim “Quick! The story of the Unhappy prince is about to begin!”.
Engagement. Engagement. Engagement. During the beginning, middle and end of the lesson and in the most immediate way, that is to say make them interact with you, their story-teller, narrator, problem-setter or puppeteer. Then you have them and the ground is fertile for you to plant the philosophical problem. However, engagement doesn’t always come easy.
I was being observed when, mid-way through telling a story, one child suddenly pipes up with,
“I want to go upstairs”
“Sure you can go, upstairs”, I reply.
“I want to go upstairs as well” chimes in another.
“Me too!” I let this child leave too.
“Can I go?” Says another as she is halfway out the door.
“Upstairs!” Choruses the rest of the group, rising. Cue a mass exodus. I lose the entire group to the mysterious delights of ‘upstairs’; I look across the empty room to the person observing me.
“This doesn’t always happen…”
Set out the basics
The engagement needed was there, but it wasn’t enough. I also needed to set out some routines and start developing some habits. These are things that our older students are already aware of, we just have to asked them to do it in the right way. Nursery needs to be introduced to these ways of working as a group. First was the concept of ‘sitting down’. As adults we view sitting down as a position that one adopts, usually for some length of time, when one is at rest. Children seem to view sitting down as a split-second transition between standing up and rolling all around the floor, limbs flailing towards the ribs of nearby teachers. Success in this area is never really complete until children are about 23 years old, I feel, but you can make progress. To get them sat in the right place I have tried a three stage strategy:
2. Many children will know the ‘Make a Circle’ song, which is set to the tune of Frere Jacques; also a good way of getting them in place.
3. Then, I play the passing game in which they have to call the name of another child and roll the ball to them. The idea behind this is that they develop the habit of talking to each other (not just me), taking turns and joining in. Try this out and if it doesn’t work try it again.
Running games with young children can take a lot of problem solving to get just right.
I’m running the pass-the-ball game with some success. Most of the children have had a turn, many of them said someone else’s name and passed that person the ball. At least two of them have said someone’s name but then threw the ball directly up, dislodging several ceiling tiles in the process. Currently one child is gripping the Elmer ball and incoherently mumbling their own monologue with occasional audible exclamations of ‘elephant!’. I gently lean forward with the glittery butterfly puppet, and as she reaches for it, I whip the ball away with my spare hand so the rest of us can continue the game.
Get to the philosophy
Once I have their attention and covered the basics I have between 1 and 13 precious minutes of philosophy potential. Most weeks I hit around the 7 mark. My success indicators for philosophy are different for younger children and by themselves may not, rightly be called philosophy. However, I consider them to be part of doing philosophy, a significant part too. More so than ‘being awake’ is part of doing philosophy but obviously less than ‘expressing valid arguments in syllogistic form’ is.
One of the greatest struggles is finding the point at which the children find a concept controversial. Friendship, for example is normally a term we reserve for describing human relationships, perhaps stretching to pets before it gets debatable whether Fido can be a friend. Children, I discovered, had few difficulties with considering animals as friends.
“Yes!” several children shout, some hands go up.
“Why?” I ask one child.
“Cause Fido is happy to see Jack”
I ask others in the group. There are no contrary views but I had anticipated this.
“OK, can jack be a friend with a robot?” I whip out a robot picture and pass it to Lyra.
She puts it next to the picture of Jack and proclaims them friends.
We still haven’t got an opposing viewpoint.
“Who thinks Jack and the robot are NOT friends?”
Silence. I begin to improvise.
“Can Jack and this pen be friends?”
I really didn’t think they would say that,
“Can you show me?”
Mason picks up the pen and the picture of Jack. He then puts on a crude puppet show in which Jack and pen meet, say hello and are best friends thereafter.
“Can Jack and this piece of paper be friends?”
“So why can’t they be friends, Casey?”
“Because paper can’t talk”
Finally I was getting to the bite point, the point at which children think of it as a friend and not a friend, the point at which it is controversial. They may not go further to give conditions of friendship (like ‘talking’) as Casey did in my cherry-picked example, but doing philosophy is substantially helped when the children see that there is a problem.
Once a problem has been spotted children tend towards the dramatic response rather than the reasoned response. Unless the dialogue is managed the to and fro of child pantomime will quickly ensue:
FAC: Mason says that they are friends
CASEY: Not they isn’t!
MASON: Yes they is!”
To begin the reasoning I look to put the grammar and language in. This is done elegantly and simply through the use of ‘why?’ as a follow-up question and ‘because…” as a prompt. Admittedly you don’t always get supporting reasons from 4-year-olds, but you will get the language and grammar of reason-giving embedded as a habit. Sometimes I’m tempted to rename my nursery sessions Becausing classes for this reason.
It’s not your session
Honestly, even when you think they have followed your plan perfectly, it is only because your plan happens to be what they want to talk about. There will be more days where they go off at a tangent you couldn’t prepare for.
Today’s story is about this land where the king has made it law that everyone must be happy. The key characters are the king who thinks it’s better to be happy and this boy who wants to be sad. And a dog. These opposing characters will help set up opposing views, enabling the children to see the controversy (adapted from The Saddest King by Christoper Wormell).
“So, the King told the boy that it was better to be happy all the time. Is it better to be happy all the time?”
“Look, the dog is funny!”
“Thank you, Sara. Is it better to be happy?”
“Look! It’s smiling…”
“Happy, sad or something else, Sara, what’s better?”
“…And its tail is wagging” I sigh heavily “So is the dog happy?”
If your question isn’t the one the children are interested in there is little point in pushing it. Sometimes they’ll answer your question if you repeat it but at other times you have to improvise a new question using the content they are interested in. On this occasion my session deviated from the ethics of when one should be happy and moved toward the metaphysical concerns of what happiness is. So I guess the session is still yours in that you are going to still aim for controversy, differing viewpoints and some level of reasoning. However, you can only suggest content to your class to see if they want to run with it and if they don’t you have to see if you can run with theirs.
Four things to try in your next nursery class are:
1. Engage them, make learning interactive at every possible moment.
2. Create the conditions for philosophy to take place; this takes longer to do with younger children.
3. Get to the philosophy, if you hear the word ‘because’ then that’s a start.
4. Keep your lesson plan near the bin at all times. Follow them.