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Volume 30, Number 1
January/February 2014

Engaging Young Minds with Philosophy

Educators use age-old questions to spark high-level thinking and discussion


Abigail Brenc, a senior at Mount Holyoke College, explains the ground rules for a philosophical discussion to second-graders.

No one mentions Aristotle. But when second-graders sit cross-legged on the rug at Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School of Excellence in Springfield, Mass., discussing “Dragons and Giants”—the story of Frog and Toad’s frightening encounters with an avalanche, a hawk, and a snake—talk turns to Aristotle’s concept of courage as weighing confidence and fear in the face of danger.

“Can you be scared and brave at the same time?” asks Charlotte Ljustina, a junior math and English double major and one of 19 Mount Holyoke students working in teams of three to help youngsters explore philosophical topics. This is the first of seven weekly sessions that bring students in Professor Tom Wartenberg’s “Teaching Children Philosophy” course to the charter school.

It is not easy work. Second-graders swing in a split second from superhero-like boasts of chopping snakes with swords to sober pleas to ignore fear and stop bullies. But then Trinity says that spotting danger is complicated. At times, you don’t know to be afraid “until you get more into it,” she says and argues, counter to several others, that you can be simultaneously scared and brave. Lorenzo, a slender boy with black-framed glasses, adds that you can have courage but not be courageous always. “I’m brave,” he says in concluding his point, “but I’m just scared of snakes.”

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

For Further Information

A. Bassiri. Implementing Philosophy in Elementary Schools: The Washington Elementary School Philosophy Project. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2013.

S. Goering, N. J. Shudak, and T. E. Wartenberg, eds. Philosophy in Schools: An Introduction for Philosophers and Teachers. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Institute for the Advancement of Philo­sophy for Children, Montclair State University

A. Reznitskaya. “Dialogic Teaching: Rethinking Language Use During Literature Discussions.” The Reading Teacher 65, no. 7 (2012): 446–456.

A. Reznitskaya et al. “Collaborative Reasoning: A Dialogic Approach to Group Discussions.” Cambridge Journal of Education 39, no. 1 (2009): 29–48.

Teaching Children Philosophy 

University of Washington, Center for Philosophy for Children

C. M. Walker, T. E. Wartenberg, and E. Winner. “Engagement in Philosophical Dialogue Facilitates Children’s Reas­oning About Subjectivity.” Developmental Psychology 49, no. 7 (2013): 1338–1347.