Philosophical Inquiry in Childhood

Author: Jana Mohr Lone
Category: Philosophy of Education
Word Count:  994

What does it mean to be normal?
Why am I here?
What makes someone love you?
Can you think and feel at the same time?
Are numbers real?
How do I know the right thing to do?

Children begin speculating about philosophical questions early in their lives. Almost as soon as they can formulate them, most children start asking what we call “big questions.” Walk into any kindergarten class, and you’ll see children eager to explore almost any facet of their lives. Virtually every parent is familiar with the experience of listening to “why” questions—question after question—from young children, to whom the world, a familiar blur to adults in the rush of everything on our minds, is a series of fresh and vivid encounters.

Brimming with curiosity about aspects of life most adults take for granted, children demonstrate an interest in exploring the most basic elements of the human condition. Philosophy for Children takes as a starting point young people’s inclinations to question the meaning of such concepts as truth, knowledge, identity, fairness, justice, morality, art, and beauty.

Philosophical Children from UW Philosophy for Children on Vimeo.

1. Wonder

Plato refers to wonder as the origin of philosophy (Theaetetus, 155d3). Wonder is the catalyst for recognizing that the most ordinary of experiences can give rise to philosophical perplexity. Fundamentally, wonder emerges in childhood, from an awareness of the novelty of being alive in the world. Children are wide open to philosophical mystery, often lying awake at night thinking about such issues as whether God exists, why the world has the colors it does, the nature of time, whether dreams are real, and why we die. Philosophy for Children pioneer Matthew Lipman puts it this way (1980, 32):

When we find the world wonderful, it is because we seem to be confronted not by soluble problems, but by utter mysteries. . . . [C]hildren wonder not only about themselves, but about the world. Where did it come from? How did it get to be the way it is? To what extent are we responsible for it? And if not we, then who?

This is the beginning of what I call the philosophical self: the part of us that understands that many aspects of our existence are profoundly mysterious.

2. The Philosophical Self

The philosophical self is fascinated by the puzzles at the heart of everyday life and the deeper meanings of our ordinary concepts, and is manifested in the propensity to ask searching questions about them. Some of the strengths children bring to this enterprise are the free play of imagination and openness to changing their minds. They don’t tend to assume they already have the answers, and they’re willing to entertain a wide range of possibilities, some of which adults would immediately rule out as implausible.

In a fourth grade philosophy session, students examine the question, “Does everything have a right to live?” Most of the children initially respond that everything does have a right to life, and the conversation leads to a discussion of whether people have a greater right to life than other living beings. Let’s listen in:

“We think that people are the most important,” suggests one student, “but that’s just because we’re people.”

“I agree,” puts in another student. “You always see things from your own perspective. I mean, mosquitoes probably think they’re the most important beings on the planet. Imagine living on a planet where we were tiny and there were these giant mosquitoes that were constantly swatting at us whenever we got near them. We wouldn’t think that just because we were smaller and less powerful, that the giant mosquitoes had more of a right to life than we did.”

“What you think about which creatures are the most important,” responds a third student, “really depends on your attachments. We think people, and dogs and cats and other pets, are more important than mosquitoes, but that’s just because we have relationships with them. If someone had a mosquito for a pet, they would probably see it differently.”

For children, philosophical inquiry is both serious and playful, merging wonder, imagination, questioning, and reflection.

3. Questioning

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel suggests that philosophy can be defined as “the art of asking the right questions.” Young children’s questions can be profoundly philosophical, yet adults regularly fail to recognize the philosophy in what children say. When a child asks, “What is time?” this is a different question than “How does a clock work?” Children frequently ask questions about aspects of the world that adults have stopped questioning (“Why do we have numbers?”).

Responding to children’s philosophical wondering involves taking their questions seriously. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen often enough. Children are typically underestimated, and in no area is this truer than in their capacities for genuine and sustained reflection about complex topics. When we fail to listen to a child’s questions, or provide quick answers that close off further questioning, or react to a child’s serious observation with something like, “Oh, what a cute comment,” we miss an opportunity to engage with a child’s thinking about the world.

4. How Do You Do Philosophy with Children?

Philosophy sessions in schools, particularly with younger students, typically occur in “communities of philosophical inquiry,” in which the questions explored emerge from the students themselves. These sessions begin with a philosophically suggestive prompt, which could be a story, an activity, a puzzle, or just the posing of a question, leading to a discussion of the questions in which the students are most interested. At the end of the session, closure can be provided by summarizing what has been discussed or through a creative activity. With individual children, try stepping away from the adult role of providing the answers, and just inquire along with them!

5. Conclusion

Wondering, unselfconscious, eager to learn — children’s questions are emblematic expressions of the human desire for understanding. Philosophy is a particularly powerful discipline for sustaining the questioning mind of childhood. We can think about philosophical questions our entire lives, beginning in childhood.

References and For Further Reading

Gheaus, Anca, Gideon Calder and Jurgen De Wispelaere, The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Childhood and Children. London: Routledge, 2019.

Goering, Sara, Nicholas Shudak and Thomas Wartenberg, Philosophy in Schools: An Introduction for Philosophers and Teachers.  New York: Routledge, 2013.

Gregory, Maughn, Joanna Haynes and Karin Murris. The Routledge International Handbook of Philosophy for Children. London: Routledge, 2017.

Lipman, Matthew. Philosophy Goes to School. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Lipman, Matthew, Ann Margaret Sharp and Frederick S. Oscanyan. Philosophy in the Classroom.             Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.

Lipman, Matthew. Thinking in Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Lone, Jana Mohr. The Philosophical Child. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012.

Lone, Jana Mohr and Michael D. Burroughs. Philosophy in Education: Questioning and Dialogue in SchoolsRowman & Littlefield, 2016.

Lone, Jana Mohr and Roberta Israeloff, eds. Philosophy and Education: Introducing Philosophy to Young People. Cambridge Scholars Press, 2012.

Matthews, Gareth. Dialogues with Children. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Matthews, Gareth. Philosophy and the Young Child. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Matthews, Gareth. The Philosophy of Childhood. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.

McCall, Catherine. Transforming thinking: Philosophical Inquiry in the Primary and Secondary Classroom.  Great Britain: Routledge, 2009.

Murris, Karin. Teaching Philosophy with Picture Books. Newport, UK: Infonet Publications, 1992.

Shapiro, David. Plato Was Wrong!  Footnotes on Doing Philosophy with Young People. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012.

Wartenberg, Thomas. A Sneetch Is a Sneetch and Other Philosophical DiscoveriesWiley-Blackwell, 2013.

Wartenberg, Thomas. Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy through Children’s Literature. Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

White, David. Philosophy for Kids: 40 Fun Questions That Help You Wonder About Everything! Austin, Texas: Prufrock Press, 2000.

Worley, Peter. The If Machine: Philosophical Enquiry in the Classroom. London: Bloomsbury, 2010.

About the Author

 Jana Mohr Lone is Director of the Center for Philosophy for Children and Affiliate Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Washington, and the author of The Philosophical Child (2012), co-author of Philosophy in Education: Questioning and Dialogue in Schools (2016)and co-editor of Philosophy and Education: Introducing Philosophy to Young People (2012). She works with teachers and students in Seattle schools and around the country and with students, parents, school administrators, and others interested in philosophical inquiry with youth. Jana is the founding president of PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization) and the founding editor-in-chief of the journal Questions: Philosophy for Young People. Her latest book is Seen and Not Heard: Why Children’s Voices Matter.

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