Tag Archives: philosophy with children

Tales from the Nursery

By Steve Hoggins

steve listeningI 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.

“Ok”

“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:

Games1. A catching game in which the prize for catching the ball is to sit in the special circle! (that I have taped out on the floor prior to the session).

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.

Fido & RobotCan Jack and Fido be 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?”

“Yes!”

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?”

“No!”

“So why can’t they be friends, Casey?”

“Because paper can’t talk”

Finally…

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!”

CASEY: No!”

MASON: Yess!

CASEY: Nooooo…No!”

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.

Saddest KingToday’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.

Recap

Four things to try in your next nursery class are:

Bin it

Be ready to bin it!

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.

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From the Chalkface

by Steve Hoggins

I had a breakthrough with one of my pupils this week, all initiated by a great learning support mentor who has also helped with our Young Philosophers group (a termly meet up of children from across Lewisham who are good at philosophy, and who don’t normally get these opportunities. The aim of the group is to inspire children, raise attainment, and also for us to keep in contact with children who would benefit from extra support).

Our class had a new arrival last term, an extremely quiet pupil who wasn’t making friends and refused to speak in philosophy. The quiet pupil was assigned a learning mentor after the first few weeks and a couple of weeks after the learning mentor approached me to say that this pupil had been talking about philosophy in their one-to-one lessons.

At the learning mentor’s suggestion the pupil would come to the class a little earlier and we’d have a chat. It transpired that she had ideas but couldn’t get them out straight and was a little intimidated by the rest of the class. We made a deal that every Talk Time (moments in the session when the children talk with each other about the question under consideration) I would listen to her idea one-to-one, and then share it with the class. At first I would share it anonymously and later we agreed that I could say it was her idea.

This week the class were discussing friendship and some argued that, ‘you can be friends with something as long as you like it; you can be friends with a teddy bear’. My shy pupil told me in Talk Time, “That’s not right, I like food but I eat food and you don’t eat your friends”. So, per our agreement, I shared this with the class. There was some healthy disagreement but some had clearly just missed the point. All of a sudden, after one particular misapprehension of the shy pupil’s idea, that same shy pupil raised a hand and with a bit of a stumble clearly re-stated her argument, speaking in front of the class for the first time since joining – whoop!

I think there are 4 things of note here:

  • This quiet pupil was actually engaging in philosophy, despite not speaking.
  • The other people around the pupil can bring valuable insight.
  • The child was drawn out from a desire clarify her idea rather than being asked/persuaded (intrinsic motivation, rather than extrinsic)
  • Some days are just brilliant.

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Why poetry? Because poetry is like a TARDIS: paradoxical and much bigger on the inside.

First of all, a confession: I haven’t read a novel – just for pleasure – for years! I have read books though, but only non-fiction, conforming to the stereotype that men read most of the novels they ever read before the age of 25. The main reason for this (that I’ve identified anyway): ever-growing demands on my time and therefore an increasing need for efficiency. However, I’m not dead behind the eyes, I don’t read car maintenance manuals; I still yearn for escapism, good writing, imaginative worlds, making connections with writers and their special worldviews. At first I turned to short stories of which, and for many years, I have been a fan. As a philosopher I have always been drawn to the way short stories put at their heart – as Philip K. Dick said – not characters but ideas. And then I (re-)discovered poetry.

What philosophers (and anyone for that matter!) can learn from poetry.

Philosophers and teachers have a tendency to exorcise contradictions and paradoxes. If something doesn’t make sense then it needs revision. This is, to some extent, right. It is rational, after all, to try to make sense of that which makes no sense. But I have noticed that the best learning happens when there is contradiction. I’d like to give an example from a maths lesson I was involved in.

We were playing a game called Secret Number (see previous blog post by Andrew Day ‘mine do it already‘) in which there is an envelope in the middle of the room containing a number between (and including) 1 and 100. The children have only 10 questions that must be answerable with either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The teacher keeps a note on the board of everything that’s inferred and the questions that were asked during the game, such as: ‘It is not even,’ (the question was: ‘Is it even?’) ‘It is not 4’, (question: ‘Is it four?’) ‘It is a double number,’ ‘It is odd,’ and so on. The children have to try to work out what the number is. There is a tendency for a teacher to try to deal with contradictions as the game goes on so that all the information is useful and that all the questions are not contradictory. But whenever I have played this game I have found that the best learning comes the more contradictions there are. So, even though the class did not guess the number, the after-game analysis was much more fruitful when the children could see where the problems were: ‘We didn’t need to ask if the number was 4 because we already know that it’s not even and 4 is an even number.’ If the teacher had said things like, ‘Do you need to ask that question?’ or, ‘Is 4 an even number? What does the board have on it about even numbers?’ during the game then the board would have ended up with no knots to untie.

Badly asked questions such as those you find in lateral thinking puzzle books are similar. It is easy to think that one shouldn’t ask a question to a class if it has been worded ambiguously but then you’d be missing the learning opportunity. Children are actually very good at unpacking badly worded questions. So, take this for example: how do you make this sum add up to 17?

8 + 6 =

The ‘answer’ at the back of the book is, of course: ‘by turning the sum upside down so that it reads 8 + 9 = 17’. But, as one 9-year-old-girl once said to me, ‘It’s not the same sum anymore, so the question’s wrong.’ A good point.

So what’s all this got to do with poetry?

Poetry welcomes the paradox, usually in the broadest sense: the paradox of what it is to be human. It welcomes the very thing good thinking tries to iron out and this is where poetry and good thinking come together. Take the poem Death is smaller than I thought by Adrian Mitchell. The paradox in this poem is clearly stated in the last three lines:

It is imaginary.

It is real.

It is love.

Not all poems make their paradox so explicit but very often they are there nevertheless. This makes an excellent starting point for thinkers: does the poem make sense? Is it understandable? Is it right? Is it how humans are? What happens to people when they die? How do we cope when people die? How are the last two questions related? And so on. Poems lead on to other poems too: after this, read Examination at the womb’s door by Ted Hughes or Transformations or To an unborn pauper child, both by Thomas Hardy.

Poems are also often quite short so they are perfect for busy teachers and busy classes where there is not much time to wade through novels. Poems are like cut diamonds in that they contain an infinite variety of complex reflections inside, all held within a beautifully shaped and formed outside. But I think the best analogy for what I’m saying in this piece is Doctor Who’s TARDIS: poems are paradoxical and much bigger on the inside.

Six poems with paradoxes

A good general principle for critically engaging with a poem is to ask (only when appropriate in the context of the poem as it is a general rule that all general rules have exceptions): ‘Do you agree with the poem/poet?’ or to take the main claim of the poem and turn it into a question: ‘What is the question?’ (Hamlet), ‘Are we the masters of our fate? Are we the captain of our souls?’ (Invictus), ‘Can anything happen? Can anything be?’ (Listen to the mustn’ts)

Death is smaller than I thought by Adrian Mitchell: this is the paradox of both believing and not believing that ones dead loved ones are still there.

An Owner’s Complaint by John Hegley – the paradox: a carrot is not a dog! However, it’s ‘answer’ poem, ‘My Dog is a Dog’ in the same collection My Dog is a Carrot, somewhat makes sense of the paradox. I use a paradoxical question with this poem: ‘When is a dog not a dog?’

Invictus by W.E. Henley – the paradox: how can we be ‘the captain of our soul’ if we are subject to chance?

Mind by Richard Wilbur – the paradox: the paradox of consciousness tries to find a simile.

Some Opposites by Richard Wilbur – the paradox of opposites: what exactly are opposites? Are they completely different or do they have something in common? What’s the opposite of opposite?

Listen to the mustn’ts by Shel Silverstein – the paradox: well, on one level it is not the case that anything can happen or be. So, what might the poet mean?

The Highwayman by Frederick Noyes – the paradox: why would you kill yourself for someone else. This one is even more paradoxical to children.

And finally, an original Thoughting by the author of this piece written especially for it:

The Contradiction Monster (or, the poem that ends before it’s begun!)

The contradiction monster

Is not like me and you

It does the strangest things, you know,

Things that we can’t do.

It tips its hat, says, ‘hello’

Then leaves as it arrives,

There’s a pair of shoes on its only foot;

It’s unmarried with seven wives.

The contradiction monster

Is not as it appears,

When it comes to dinner

It gets smaller as it nears.

A mother with no children,

He sings to them at night.

The contradiction monster’s wrong

Only when it’s right.

For how to run a poetry philosophical enquiry visit Pete’s blog here.

Peter Worley is CEO and co-founder of The Philosophy Foundation, the president of SOPHIA – the European foundation for doing philosophy with children and is currently a Visiting Research Associate at King’s College London. He has written 5 books on philosophy with children including a collection of poetry for thinking called Thoughtings (co-written with Andrew Day and published by Crown House) and his latest book Once Upon an If: The Storythinking Handbook (which includes a section on ‘Stories in Verse’ and is published by Bloomsbury). 

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