Talking philosophy with children through stories

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“Philosophy, if it cannot answer so many questions as we could wish, has at least the power of asking questions which increase the interest of the world, and show the strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the commonest things of daily life.”

The Problems of Philosophy — Bertrand Russell, 1912

World Philosophy Day is celebrated by UNESCO on the third Thursday of November each year. By drawing attention to the importance of philosophy and philosophical discourse, we encourage you to acknowledge ‘the development of human thought’ and the importance of critical thinking.

In a previous post we shared some ideas about philosophical concepts in famous pieces of classic literature (Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R. L. Stevenson and To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf). This time we invite you to explore the philosophical aspects of children’s literature.

Philosophy with young learners? Surely it’s too complex and vague a subject to address with young children, some of you may say. We would like to list three fundamental reasons why philosophy is not just already present in the world of our children, it is also an important discipline that they should cultivate over the years of education and beyond.

1 Children are natural philosophers

How many times have you heard children ask the most surprising, imaginative and philosophical questions about why we are, who we are and what we are? Children observe the world around them and try to organise it in meaningful and approachable structures. They look for answers in their own environment but they also look at the universe, and they look into the past. We can engage them with surprising and well-designed questions about topics that might interest them. And they will invariably surprise and enlighten us with the depth and simplicity of their answers.

2 Children connect with stories naturally

Although we are often reminded that there is an important difference between literature and philosophy, as a student of literature it came to me as big relevation when I realized how well-defined, structured and clear philosophical discussions were. As the author and philosopher, Iris Murdoch said in an interview, literature mystifies and philosophy clarifies the world around us. She also points out that an important feature these two disciplines share is that they are both ‘truth-seeking and truth-revealing activities’.

We teach children about our world through stories, using them to explain social norms and values, explore difficult emotions and life events and set up ‘what-if’ situations.  Stories provide a safe context for children to think about profound issues and develop all-important critical thinking skills. By asking questions, and facilitating student-centred discussion we can help young children become creative and collaborative critical thinkers.

Download the Teacher’s Guide to The Thinking Train series, our picturebook series written by Herbert Puctha and Günter Gerngross. The activities and the guide was written by Marion Williams.

3 Children understand metaphors and abstract ideas

Most children’s books are packed with figurative langauge and abstract ideas. Young children are better-equipped to understand metaphor than older ones or adults as their limited experience of the world encourages them to look for understanding through analogy. Children’s books also contain illustrations so these concepts are represented visually. Illustration and the written story support each other in manifold ways in children’s books to create an amazing texts

Visit this great resource site to find out more about children’s books and philosophical questions. You can also download lesson plans.

Five young readers to introduce philosophy

In the Helbling Young Readers series we also offer some stories which can lead to interesting discussions. Let’s see the titles and what concepts they touch upon.

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The Sun is Broken written by Andrés Pi Andreu and illustrated by Catty Flores

The plot

When her grandmother dies, a little girl still feels her connection with her to be real, but her parents are more difficult to convince.

A philosophical question

What happens when someone dies? What is real? What is the difference between things you imagine and things that you can see?

Dad for Sale written by Andrés Pi Andreu and illustrated by Enrique Martinez

The plot

A little boy doesn’t have all the things that his friend Rosie has. Should he look for a new dad?

A philosophical question

How do you know your parents love you? What is more important, love or material things? Are the best things in life free?

Freddy the Frog Prince written by Maria Cleary and illustrated by Agilulfo Russo

The plot

Freddy, the frog is happy life and in love. His life dramatically changed when a young princess, Priscilla decides that he is the ‘man’ for her.

A philosophical question

What is love? Can we force a person to change his or her original nature and being?

The Thirsty Tree written by Adrián N. Bravi and illustrated by Valentina Russello

The plot

The tree on the top of the hill really needs some water  on a hot summer day. A bird, Cloudbreak appears to help the tree.

A philosophical question

How are things in nature related to each other?

The Dark in the Box written by Rick Sampedro and illustrated by Manuela Scarfò

The plot

Andy doesn’t like going to bed. He can’t sleep. He is afraid of the dark. How can Andy overcome his fear?

A philosophical question

What is the difference between the day and the night? Why are we afraid of some things?

Do you know any great stories which raise philosophical issues? Share them with us!

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