Teaching Elementary School Philosophy


The reasons most often given for engaging young children in philosophy have to do with strengthening their cognitive and communicative skills, and introducing them to formative ethical and political ideas. These ways in which philosophy is “good for” children are valuable objectives, to be sure, but they all derive from a more primary reason to do philosophy with young children: that it is meaningful for them. Young children are naturally inquisitive. They struggle to make sense of their everyday experience and of the academic, social and cultural knowledge they begin to acquire at school – a process they typically enjoy, at least until it becomes routinized and associated with high-stakes rewards and punishments. Young children’s curiosity and wonderment are easily triggered. They are full of questions – and significantly, many of their questions have philosophical content:

• Is my dog a person?
• Is it fair for the boys to always use the soccer field?
• Is it OK to kill some bugs but not others?
• What did mom mean, that I need to come up with a ‘better reason’?
• Where did grandpa go when he died?
• Why does time move so quickly sometimes and so slowly other times?
• How can anyone think beetles are beautiful?
• What does it mean to be a ‘best friend’?
• Can anyone know everything?

Young children’s experience is already replete with philosophical meaning. They have strong, even visceral, intuitions of what is beautiful and ugly, fair and unfair, right and wrong. They enjoy playing with language and are intrigued by logical puzzles. They are given to metaphysical speculation and frequently engage in epistemology: asking how we know what we think we know. Indeed, many professional philosophers date their interest in philosophy to their early childhoods. And as children approach adolescence, they begin to confront existential questions such as: What does it all mean? Is life ever fair? and What do I think my life is for?

Elementary school philosophy, therefore, is not about imposing an unfamiliar, ancient and highly intellectual discipline on children, in hopes it might be good for them, but about giving them the opportunity to explore ethical, aesthetic, political, logical and other philosophical aspects of their experiences that are already intensely meaningful for them, but that are not often given attention in schools (or elsewhere). In that regard, the reasons for elementary school philosophy should be the same as those for every other school subject, e.g. science, mathematics, literature and history. We expect these subjects to not only prepare children to study them at advanced levels later in life, but to enrich their lives now with scientific, mathematical, literary, historical – and philosophical – meaning.


Elementary school philosophy draws students’ attention to philosophical concepts like fairness, person, mind, beauty, cause, time, number, truth, citizen, good and right – concepts that are already implicated in children’s experience, and that children need to make their experiences more meaningful, in both senses of that word: more understandable and richer, more worthwhile. The content of elementary school philosophy, therefore, is not the traditional philosophical problems and arguments that are the stuff of high school and college philosophy courses, or the traditional philosophical sub-disciplines of ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, political philosophy and logic, or even the important figures in the history of philosophy – though some of this may become meaningful for older children who have some experience with philosophy. An important objective of elementary school philosophy is to help children become conversant with philosophical concepts, and to discern them wherever they arise – sometimes referred to as developing “a philosophical ear.”

As we become more sensitive to the philosophical dimensions of our experiences, what we find are not fixed meanings, but questions, problems and vague opportunities that call for investigation, judgment and action—in a word, inquiry. As children learn to recognize when situations have an ethical dimension, for example, they begin to wonder about what is good, right or just in those situations, how to resolve conflicting ethical claims, and what kind of community and world they want to help to create. They begin to appreciate that the ways in which they respond in such situations will help determine their ethical outcome, both in terms of whether those situations become more or less good, right or just, and in terms of the kind of persons they are becoming.

The central method of philosophical inquiry is careful thinking, and helping children learn to think well is one of the most important objectives of elementary school philosophy. Philosophy has always been preoccupied with good thinking, logic being one of its oldest branches. While formal logic is beyond the ken of young children, they are very capable of the informal logical operations that constitute basic reasoning, including giving reasons, considering evidence, agreeing and disagreeing, giving examples and counterexamples, and making comparisons and distinctions. Elementary school philosophy should familiarize children with both the concept of inquiry – as an ideal of working toward reasonable judgment – and a number of practical methods and strategies for conducting their own philosophical inquiries. Reasoning, as just described, is one important method. Another is attempting to discover a wide range of ideas and points of view relevant to the question under consideration, so that our judgments will be well-informed as well as well-reasoned.

One of the most ancient, the most effective and the most widespread methods of philosophical inquiry is dialogue: a conversation centered on a particular question or problem, in which the participants share diverse views about it, clarify each other’s thinking, offer multiple possible answers, and test those answers by coming up with reasons for and against them.  The teacher or “facilitator” of these dialogues neither leads the children to a predetermined answer nor attempts to validate every opinion as equally sound. Instead, she models and prompts careful thinking, helps the children to see the structure that emerges in each dialogue, and encourages them to follow the inquiry where it leads, i.e. in the direction of the strongest arguments and evidence.   The goal of dialogue is not complete consensus, but that each participant be able to decide what s/he thinks is most reasonable, whether that judgment puts her in league with a majority of her peers, with a minority, or by her/himself.

Dialogue also provides a concentrated opportunity for children to practice important communicative and social skills, such as attentive listening, mindful speech, helping another person express his idea, building on the ideas of others, offering and accepting criticism respectfully, sharing important but unpopular opinions, and self-correcting. Many philosophers and educators have noted the pedagogical benefits of dialogue, which brings its own ethical and rational discipline. A successful dialogue has energy and a sense of adventure – something even young children avidly enjoy – but it also requires rigorous thinking, wide-ranging participation and the coordination of the participants’ various communicative strengths and points of view. Children who participate in disciplined dialogue learn to overcoming shyness, aggression and attention-grabbing behaviors for the sake of cooperating in a kind of group work they find meaningful.



The question is often asked, at what age are children capable of doing philosophy? While no definitive answer to this question has emerged, a number of innovative pre-school and kindergarten programs have demonstrated that even very young children are able to take turns giving each other reasons they find different insects ugly, scary or beautiful – and to alter their judgments as a result of the conversation. Of course, the objectives and contours of any program of elementary school philosophy should reflect the children’s age and socio-cultural context. Some youngsters may need several months of practice in order to understand the difference between a question, an answer and a reason, or to be comfortable taking turns talking in a group. In any case, philosophical engagement with young children needs to be more playful and multi-sensory than philosophy with older children.

Professional Development

Neither parents nor classroom teachers unfamiliar with philosophy, nor philosophy professors or graduate students unfamiliar with elementary school pedagogy, will necessarily find it easy to engage children in doing philosophy. Teaching elementary school philosophy requires someone who loves ideas but doesn’t think s/he knows everything; who listens to children with a sensitive philosophical ear; who thinks carefully and is transparent in doing so; who is procedurally rigorous – asking open-ended questions, posing alternative views, asking for clarification, helping make connections and challenging reasons – but is comfortable with ambiguity; and who sees her/himself as a co-inquirer with the children.


Teachers and students who are new to philosophy may find it advantageous to begin with a curriculum designed specifically for doing philosophy with children. The advantages of such materials are that they make philosophical themes easy to recognize and include reasoning exercises and other philosophical activities.  There is a wealth of materials available for introducing philosophy in elementary school classrooms, and many are listed on this website here. Those with greater sensitivity to philosophical themes and skill at reasoning and dialogue may use all manner of materials to stimulate a philosophical inquiry, e.g. film clips, stories the children bring to the classroom, current events, and children’s literature. It is important that such materials not only present one or more philosophical themes, but present them as contestable – as something that provokes questioning and inquiry. Preferably, a variety of perspectives on the theme should be represented.

Other Practical Considerations

There are numerous considerations to be made in developing an elementary school philosophy program, including the following:

• What grade(s) or age-levels will be involved?
• Will the program be conducted at a school, a community center, or somewhere else?
• If at a school, will the program be given time in the school day or be conducted at lunch or after-school?
• How will the program be structured, e.g. as a series of dialogues around philosophical texts? As a series of debates on controversial issues?
• What kind of space – room, chairs, whiteboard, etc. – would be most conducive to the program?
• Will the program be voluntary or required?
• What specific objectives will the program be designed to reach?
• How will the program be assessed?
• How will children in the program be assessed?
• What materials will be needed?
• Who will conduct the program and how can that person’s philosophical and pedagogical qualifications be determined?
• Will the program be, or would it benefit from, a partnership between a school and a college or university philosophy department?
• Who will need to approve the program and how can that approval be obtained?
• How can interest in the program be generated, among students, parents, teachers, administrators and community members?
• How will the program be funded?


Resources on Organizing, Supporting and Teaching Elementary School Philosophy

• Phil Cam, et al.: Philosophy for Young Children: A Classroom Handbook (Deakin West, Australian Capital Territory: Australian Curricu-lum Studies Association, Inc., 2007).
• Phil Cam: Thinking Together: Philosophical Inquiry for the Classroom (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger/PETA, 1995).
• Robert Fisher: Teaching Thinking: Philosophical Enquiry in the Classroom (London / New York: Continuum, 2008).
• Maughn Gregory, ed.: Philosophy for Children Practitioner Handbook, Montclair, New Jersey: Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, 2008.
• Maughn Gregory: “Philosophy in Schools: Ideals, Challenges and Opportunities,” Critical and Creative Thinking: The Australasian Journal of Philosophy in Schools, Vol. 16, No. 1 (May 2008), 5-22.
• Maughn Gregory: “A Framework for Facilitating Classroom Dialogue,” Teaching Philosophy, Vol. 30, No. 1 (March 2007), pp. 59-84.
• Maughn Gregory: “On Philosophy, Children & Taboo Topics,” Food for Thought: The Occasional Paper Series of the New Jersey Network for Educational Renewal, Vol. 3, No. 2 (March 2005), reprinted in Gregory, 2008.
• Thomas E. Jackson: “The Art and Craft of ‘Gently Socratic’ Inquiry” in Arthur L. Costa, ed.: Developing Minds: A Resource Book for Teaching Thinking, 3rd Edition (Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2001), 459-65.
• Thomas Jackson: “Teacher Training: The ‘Preferred Format,” Analytic Teaching, Vol. 10, No. 2 (May 1990) 34-39.
• Matthew Lipman, et al.: Philosophy in the Classroom (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980).
• Catherine C. McCall: “Functions of Training in Philosophy for Children,” Analytic Teaching Vol. 10, No. 2 (May 1990), 15-21.
• Mairetta McCarty: Little Big Minds: Sharing Philosophy with Kids (New York: Penguin, 2006)
• Thomas E. Wartenberg: Big Ideas for Little Kids (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2009)
• David A. White: Philosophy for Kids : 40 Fun Questions That Help You Wonder About Everything! (Waco, TX: Prufrock Press, 2001)

Resources on Doing Philosophy with Very Young (Preschool-Primary School) Children

• Barbara Bruning: “What is a Philosophical Discussion with Young Children?” Analytic Teaching Vol. 8, No. 1 (November 1987), 87-92.
• Marie-France Daniel and Ann-Marie Michael: “Learning to Think and to Speak: An Account of an Experiment Involving Children Aged 3 to 5 in France and Quebec,” Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children Vol. 15, No. 3 (2000), 17-25
• Joyce I. Fields: “Young children as emergent philosophers,” Early Child Development and Care Vol. 107, No. 1 (1995), 57-59.
• David Kennedy: “Young children’s moves: emergent philosophical community of inquiry in early childhood discourse,” in Critical & Creative Thinking Vol. 4, No. 2 (October 1996), 28-41.
• David Kennedy: “Helping children develop the skills & dispositions of critical, creative & caring thinking,” Analytic Teaching Vol. 15, No. 1 (November 1994), 3-16
• David Kennedy: “Using ‘Peter Rabbit’ as a Philosophical Text with Young Children,” Analytic Teaching Vol. 13, No. 1 (November, 1992), 53-58.
• David Kennedy: “Young Children and Ultimate Questions: Romancing at Day Care,” in Analytic Teaching Vol. 12, No. 1 (November, 1991), 59-64.
• Vicki Mackrill: “Philosophy for Children in Kinder and Prep,” Critical and Creative Thinking Vol. 3, No. 2 (October 1995).
• Catherine McCall: “Young Children Generate Philosophical Ideas,” Thinking Vol. 8, No 2 (1989), 22-41.
• Karin Murris: “Philosophy with Preliterate Children,” Thinking Vol. 14, No. 4 (1999), 23-33.
• Peter Shea: “Offering a Frame to put Experience In: Margaret Wise Brown Presents Ideas as Opportunities to Very Young Children,” Thinking Vol. 17, No. 3 (2004), 30-37.
• UNESCO: “Teaching philosophy and learning to philosophize at pre-school and primary levels,” Chapter 1 of Philosophy: A School of Freedom: Teaching philosophy and learning to philosophize: Status and prospects (Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 2007), 1-45.