So simple—and yet so crucial

Talking Philosophy With Small Children

by Per Jespersen

2.500 years ago the ancient Greeks started asking themselves, whether only religion could provide humanity with THE only truth. They truly wondered, that the religious upper-class was able to know everything, and they deeply wondered, how they had managed to reach the full and right truth, as they told everybody what to believe in and what to recognize. The philosophers asked themselves: is it possible for a single human being by means of his reasoning and thinking to find out the complexity of Life. During the next centuries they came up with several theories about Nature, about emotions, about reason and causality, and they did ask: do the legends as we know them tell us the truth, or are they only fiction or imagination? The first seed to individualization was sown. The single human being was meant to find himself and know himself in order to comprehend other human beings. Socrates said, that the greatest knowledge was to realize, that one does not know anything. His motto "Know yourself" ran as a red thread from these years through Western history of culture until today. He did not say: "Love one another" but "Know yourself in order to know one another".

Put in modern terms: we are not able to understand our surroundings, if we do not know our inner I. Socrates tried to help youngsters in Athens through his teaching, and they loved him for it. Because he respected these young boys for what they were, and he did not try to push them in any way, and he did not try to give them any final answers.

That is the way it is today, too: any human being, and thereby any child, has a right to be listened to by an unprejudiced adult, who sincerely wishes to help the child finding itself and be confidential with its own I.

Every single little child is a new human being on this planet—there has never been such a human being before. Thus, it is valuable because of its own subjectivity. Although we are a whole people, a whole democracy, a whole humanity—we are all individualists, and if the single human being does not have the opportunity to develop in its full on its own premises, people, democracy, and humanity will crackle. The world is a unity, because borders exist and different cultures exist. If it were not so, there would be no entire humanity. Thus, difference is a value, a challenge, and an obligation.

Some scientists mean, that even a baby of 2 weeks waking up in its pram in the garden after having slept safely for some hours is capable of wondering about the white clouds in the sky, and wondering where they come from.

Here we have the key-concept: wondering.

Childhood is fairy tale and wondering. In the very beginning this wondering is wordless—language is not there yet. This makes us believe, that nothing is going on in the baby's mind—exactly as the ancient Greeks believed, that a human being was an empty shell, needing religion to put things in the right order. Deep down this wondering means: I wish to know who I am in order to understand—help me with this!

Later language comes—new words every day—new constructions of sentences. Happy and proud parents!!! Without our seeing it, language penetrates the universe of wondering in the child's inner life: words are now put on the longing after knowing oneself. The longing can be expressed: Why am I here? Where was I, before I was born? Where am I going?

So even with very young children it is possible to have a philosophical dialogue. The children are "pre-philosophical"—in their inner soul there are thousands of questions and very few answers. So the teacher in a first class should create an environment, in which these questions can be expressed and discussed. It is very often called a "community of inquiry" but I would prefer to call it a "classroomable universe of questioning". There is nothing lovelier than having the opportunity to express the burning questions from one's inner I, to hear them discussed, to feel them being accepted, to discover that one's classmates have the same questions: to feel that one is not alone in this huge world with one's questions and peculiar thoughts. There is nothing lovelier than listening to questions similar to one's own, knowing that they will not be answered in any final way, but bloom as questions in the air as breath from the entire humanity. There is nothing lovelier than feeling that the subconscious streams of thoughts and emotions are the most valuable spiritual veins of togetherness.

Therefore, philosophy for children is both a method and a goal—or rather it is neither of the two, but a way of being together. A positive, creative, and questioning atmosphere in the classroom is the basis of having philosophical talks with even small children. But it demands a willingness of the teacher to put himself aside for a while—he is not the most important person in the world—he is not a complete encyclopedia—he is not a god. But he should be a catalyst for what is going on in the students' minds every time there is a talk going on, every time a story is being read, every time dreams are being retold and reexperienced.

For small children dreams is a good subject. They all have experiences on this field. Let them tell about their dreams—discuss them—be excited—tell about your own dreams—and put in some questions sometimes, when the opportunity is there:

What is the difference between dreams and reality?

Do dreams belong to reality?

Where do dreams come from?

Can we exchange dreams?

Are there feelings involved in dreams?

Do not give any answers but make the students discuss. They will love it!!! Oh, it feels so good to be listened to—it feels so good to listen to others' dreams—it feels so good to hear the teacher tell about his dreams.

Here we are: this is philosophy for children. The beginning of it, the nuclear of it, the nerve in it, and the spirituality of it.

If you have not tried this, then do it, and you will experience so marvellous responses and caring feelings from the children, that you would not imagine it. It will give you so much, because the children's minds bloom as a cherry tree in the spring—and the philosophical thoughts bizz around like the butterflies and bees visiting the cherry flowers to find the nectar.

Philosophy for children is not a science or anything like that—it is Life as beautiful as the smell of the nectar on a flowering meadow.

So talking philosophy with small children means to get closer to the intention of the nature of being. That is exactly what most children ponder about: Why am I here? What is the intention of my being? Whose intention is it?

Again: questions. Thousands of them. And the teacher does not have the answer, and it is my firm belief (and experience), that the questions from the kids do not demand answers. The children want to share their questions with eachother in order to know, that they are not alone with these sometimes strange thoughts. We all share them—they are the basis of humaneness. We are not human beings if we do not have questions to Life and being. Socrates said: The unexamined life is not worth living. So the questions are there as a jumping-off ground to examination, while we simultaneously know, that we will never find all the answers. If you ask the children the following question: How would life be, if we had all the answers, the answer will immediately be: boring.

Therefore, philosophy is the questioning science, the life-science, which mirrors the inner soul of our minds. But it raises some problems: many schools have curriculae, that do not take into account, that the basis of all subjects, which the school offers, is what I would call positive ignorance, i.e. ignorance is the beginning of everything. Positive ignorance leads to questioning in a positive universe in the classroom, where togetherness is there all the time. All the questions, which the ancient philosophers gave us and pondered about, are universal, so they are still there: in the children's minds.

But they have to be released, in order not to be regressed, and in order to prevent prejudices in the children, as they grow up.

I remember a lesson in a wonderful class, I once had. We were talking about the parables of Jesus, but Daniel did not listen. He was thinking! Suddenly he interrupted: There is something, I don't understand. In older times people believed in God and the Devil. They both existed in peoples' minds, and it was up to people to cling to God in order to avoid Hell and purgatory. But now, and that's what I don't understand, the Devil is repealed (as if the Parliament had voted about this crucial case). So my question is: who created evil? It can't be God—he would never do such a thing—so who did that?

The class discussed. Some students had the opinion, that the Devil was not repealed, some children had even seen him recently—and God would never create anything evil.

I did not interfere, as long as the dialogue and discussion ran by themselves. And it was not necessary either, because Daniel suddenly said: Oh, now I know. God did create the evil things.

No way! No way!!!! No!!!!!!

He sure did, Daniel replied. Because if there were nothing evil, we would not be able to recognize good as good.


What a dialogue! Of course I was not prepared for this—it was not in the curriculum—but it was philosophy—the souls were involved in a dialogue about something crucial for the children: Why is there anything evil in this world? Children do ponder about this every day—and perhaps they have never an opportunity like this, which suddenly occurred, to express their fear. Because they do fear evilness, as we all do.

I was wondering, too. But Daniel saved me in his continuation: If we had all the answers on anything, life would be boring. Good would not be good if evil didn't exist. That's the same. Now I see it!!

Back in the teacher's room, my colleagues asked: Did you manage to follow the curriculum in this lesson?


You know, what we mean—it's a difficult day following the curriculum.

Oh, is it?

Are you ill?

No, I'm so happy!

So you did manage??

Yeah, I managed. While I thought: I managed to raise a philosophical dialogue helped by Daniel, and I discovered how important it is to talk philosophy with children. Together we took a walk into the flowering meadow of philosophy, smelling all the nectar of the flowers of ignorance TOGETHER. This was a day!!!!

So how does one do this?

It is not a question of a curriculum.

It is not a question of planning.

It is not a question of preparing.

It is beauty, and beauty is uncurricable!!!

It is a question of listening—of always being aware of what is going on in the children's minds—of being ready to grasp the streams of soulish thoughts when they are there.

Thus, we do have a problem here in this modern world of ours: we want to schedule everything. We want planning. We dare not jump over the twenty fathoms of water, as Kierkegaard speaks about. We cannot plan philosophy with children—we cannot make a curriculum, because if we do, thousands of flowering thoughts will escape our attention.

So what can we do?

I sometimes use p4c-short stories—very short texts with inbuilt philosophical concepts, hoping that the children will grasp them. They very often do, but equally often they see other concepts in the text, than I have seen.

Perhaps because philosophy is subjective, although we all the time try to make it objective. Maybe objectivity does not exist at all—it could be an illusion. As Karl Raimund Popper has put it: Knowledge is only an illusion, we do not know anything, we are only assuming. There is a deep truth in these words.

So perhaps philosophy is more simple, than we think. Crucial and simple at the same time—as Life!

Daniel would put it this way: Simplicity and complexity should be there simultaneously—as good and evil.

Or as Andreas, whom I have met recently, put it: 90 percent of our mind is subconscious and only 10 percent conscious. The spiritual power comes from the unknown (subconsciousness), and although we spend a lot of time trying to explain how scheduled we are, we are cheated. I love the unknown, because it makes Life so exciting, that I can't sleep. And the best of all is to share this with you.


A sacred moment!!

In these years we all have a hunger after spiritual depth—a perspective to Life. Many children suffer from loneliness, which leads to isolation, inferiority, and regression. We live in the decade of loneliness. The teacher's task is to adjust these tendencies in children's development, but we make the mistake, that we think it is not worth while to talk with children about their inner thoughts and emotions. I have seen children change totally after only one talk on these premises. But I have also seen children close the door completely to their inner I: leave me alone!

Thus philosophy is method—a way of being together—a way of living. In a certain famous book you can find the following words: "Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven".

I dare to paraphrase: Unless you turn and listen to children and learn from their philosophy, you will never be able to take a trip over the blooming meadow of philosophical dialogues.

So simple—and yet so crucial!!

Randerup, Denmark, May 17, 1999

Page created: 27.09.06. Page last modified: 29.09.06 19:33.