Mini-course philosophising with children

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Why would you philosophise?

By philosophising children learn to think and they can come to insights without previous knowledge through reasoning.

But there’s more… their vocabulary and verbal capabilities grow, they learn to listen to each other, ask questions in order to express their thoughts and ideas. They learn to formulate opinions. But the most fun reason is that you, as a parent or a teacher, learn to see children in a different light. You don’t just find out what they think, but also how they think. And moreover, philosophising can give children a wonderful, free feeling.

There are no wrong or right answers and there is no need for any previous knowledge; they just need their heads. And the good thing is, everyone has a head. Whether you have dyslexia, dyscalculia, or whatever else it doesn’t matter.

The difference between a philosophical conversation and ordinary group discussion

A philosophical conversation is different than a group discussion. Many people will call a good conversation a philosophical conversation with the greatest ease. A philosophical discussion most definitely can be called a good conversation but the reverse is not necessarily the case.


What is so distinctive about a philosophical discussion? First of all the conversation originates from a philosophical question; a question that can only be answered by thinking freely.

But thinking freely is not the same as fantasising. It’s not a matter of asking a crazy question and going with the flow of fantasy-answers that children may come up with. It’s not about thinking about what Martians would look like, rather than thinking about how we can be sure whether or not they actually exist.

While philosophising, opinions are used as a starting point of thought and not as a goal in itself. It is what lies underneath. Are the arguments correct, do they contradict each other or not, are they logical, are they based on truth or on assumptions? Etc.

In a normal group conversation the expression of emotions and feelings are often important. In philosophy you look for similarities between children’s’ emotions and the rules or insights you can gain from looking at this. What kind of universal statements can you give as a result of that individual feeling?

Out of your comfort zone as a teacher

When you are leading a philosophical conversation, you are not really a teacher. You are wearing a different hat. It’s also important not to show your opinion on the subject. Children are so used to their teacher being the one who knows the answers that they will immediately think that your answer is the right answer. They will stop thinking by themselves.

For example the question: Can you be free at school?

It goes without saying that every child has its own ideas about this. Yet, adults would like children to think that it is fun at school. But with these kinds of questions, the insights children that come up with are much more valuable without the teacher’s interference.

The most important rule is therefore: only ask questions, don’t answer them.

Furthermore it’s important that:

  • You dare to show your own curiosity and unawareness
  • You lead the conversation when it comes to keeping order and respect for each other’s speaking turns.
  • You don’t require children to participate aloud, but do try to encourage it.
  • You trust children in their own wisdom.

Visualise this different role

To make clear that, during a philosophical conversation, you are momentarily not a teacher and know “nothing”, you can do something special. You can put on a special thinking hat, put on a question cloak, light a candle, or put a big question mark in the middle of the circle – something that you can repeat every time you lead a philosophical conversation.

Probing questions

tickle-talks-childrens-philosophie-in-actionPhilosophy is so much more than a compilation of different answers. The first answers are usually just the beginning. But children should be encouraged to think ahead, you can do this by asking about motives, underlying thoughts, presuppositions, assumptions and other thoughts.

  • Is that so?
  • How can you be so sure?
  • Could it be any other way?
  • Is it always like that?
  • Why?
  • How is that possible?
  • Can you give an example?
  • What if it’s different?
  • Does everybody agree?
  • Is there a rule for that?
  • Does that apply for everything?

Is it difficult for you to probe? Download the probing cards. You can print, cut and glue them on a piece of carton or laminate them. Try putting them in a pile and pick from the top. Or give all children a question card and let them raise their hands if the question is suitable for the conversation.

What are philosophical questions?

After the philosophical stimulus, all children can think of a (philosophical) question. You or the class can pick the most interesting one to start the conversation with.

Characteristics of a philosophical question:

  • The answer cannot be found in a book, encyclopaedia or at Wikipedia
  • The adult is also not sure about the answer (though he/she might often think so)
  • It is not about having an opinion (What do you think of Brussels sprouts?)
  • It is not about scientific knowledge (How does rain come to exist?)

Often, it is not immediately obvious what kind of answer you can expect to a philosophical question. The question is not about reality but about a possibility.

Questions about reality:

  1. When was the Second World War?
  2. How does a bomb come to explode?
  3. What is the capital of Belgium?

Questions about a possibility:

  1. Does it matter where you are born?
  2. Does everything have a cause?
  3. Are you allowed to do something bad to achieve something good?

The first three questions are about facts. In the last three questions you should seek your own answers amongst many possibilities. There is no one true answer. The answer can vary depending on your values, assumptions and presuppositions.

What should we be philosophising about?

Basically, anything that raises questions or confusion and makes you wonder can be the beginning of a philosophical conversation. Think of a story, a drawing assignment, a movie, a photograph or a painting. If you are a bit more familiar in the world philosophising, you may notice that it will become easier to see philosophical questions and conversations in things and situations.