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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

Philosophy with children during a pandemic

Dialogue is essential Equally listening.

What I have found over the years is that working philosophically with children has enabled me and the children to develop our skills to truly listen to each other and also how we express ourselves. fears, joys, curiosities and wonders have been explored together in a safe place, where we no longer felt alone with them...

My role, as adult is as facilitator... not leader... but to enable the communication between the children - whether it be verbal or non-verbal

Working philosophically with children is not simply doing philosophy sessions... it is much more complex than that and stretches across the whole week. I provided experiences, activities, information and time and space for children to acquire the skills they need to master philosophical dialogues with each other. The philosophy sessions provided me with the information I needed about the children about activities and play opportunities that could support them, not just to be good at philosophy but also cognitively, emotionally and socially. The dialogues we had about fear in philosophy was the fuel that lead to art and play experiences in the dark, playing with heights etc that I wrote about in my post The Art of Healing.

They also provided me with the information about how they were understanding and processing the world, and what I could do and provide to help them continue to process this and ensure they had access to the information they needed to make informed decisions. These experiences I then offered enabled the dialogues to go deeper, allowed me to learn more, offer better experiences, create a wonderful learning environment emerging from the children.

The philosophy sessions had very clear rules - these are ours...

  1. we kept on topic, unless we there was consensus to change the direction (this seldom happened because between 1-5 years of age our dialogues were seldom long enough for the children to be willing to collectively change direction)

  2. we all actively listen to each other... I always started every session with the reminder that we listened with our ears, our eyes, our hearts and our minds...

  3. that all ideas were welcome to be discussed

  4. that we do not need to all agree with each other, but we do need to value each other's opinion

  5. that the main aim is to strive to learn from each other and gain a better understanding of the world

  6. that we are allowed to change our mind

  7. that it is OK to be wrong, it a way we learn

  8. we use a respectful tone, but getting passionate and excited can be a part of the process of exploring and sharing ideas

  9. we critique ideas and not each other

Of course i don't pile all these rules onto the children at once... they are the rules that guide me as facilitator and I create the dialogue platform based on these rules, where the children are aware of them.

Our first dialogues, when I first started with this approach, lasted about 10 minutes, I had worked a few months with the children first getting to know them and introducing philosophical conversations to see how they would be received, before actually starting the "strict" rules of philosophy. I remember feeling a slight sense of panic thinking this would never work. I had a small group, that were all new to each other and to me, and within the year I had learned that 70% of them had a special need of one kind or another... that with support went down to 50% (as my non-Swedish speaker started speaking Swedish and my extremely shy child gained confidence and dared to talk etc). But still, I look back and think if I could make it work, then this is something that can work with just about any group of children given time, energy and determination to not only give children power but allow them to understand the responsibility that comes with that... and hand it over bit by bit to create something positive.

The philosophy sessions were a big part of this... the children learned that this was a space where I did not teach... I listened, and my words were only to enable the dialogue to continue... in the beginning I needed to scaffold the children quite a bit as this was a group of 2-4 year olds and it would be easy for the more verbal older children to take over the dialogue - which would make incredibly interesting listening, but it would not create an inclusive community of learners.

But to read more about my journey with philosophy with children you can read the posts i link at the end of this one...

Back to philosophy as a strategy in pandemic times...

I see classrooms are having to be structured to be all forward facing tables to limit infection. Philosophy with children should be done in a circle, so there will be a need to create a circle that is large enough for the children not to be too close, but small enough so all children are heard. If we are to listen with eyes too, we need to be able to see each other... to see the body language, lips moving, emotions being projected... that is hard to do if you only see the back of a head. So creating small philosophy sessions could be a good way to ensure good communication and social interaction. Smaller groups are better, because then there is less waiting between expressing ideas and opinions and listening to the opinions of others. Too big groups can mean some children do not get the time and space to share. What is the right size is going to depend on the age and ability of the children you are working with.

In the beginning I had 13 children as my maximum, but I frequently had smaller break-out groups of 3-4 children to have a mini session, so that the children could practice their skills of both talking and listening. When I had 10-13 children my colleague was always with me and s/he would write down verbatim what the children were saying. With smaller groups I would try and facilitate and write at the same time... which is not as easy.

Our sessions would begin with everyone choosing a space to sit, choosing a spot next to someone that did not make listening difficult (we talked a lot about what did we need to be able to listen well, and what made it hard to listen)


  1. we started with a stimulus - a story, a question, a photo or photos, a film, or object/s

  2. a thinking pause (see my post on this)

  3. the dialogue

  4. the meta-dialogue - this was usually reading back the dialogue to the children to ask them if we had written down what they had said correctly, and whether they wanted to change their mind. The children adored listening to what they had said, and things did get corrected and minds were changed... and we would always add that to the documentation.

As I mentioned above, at the start it was 10 minutes, including a warm up question (in the beginning we always asked a simple question like, what is your favourite food, or colour, so that all children could say something and get a sense of participation and how that felt, and that it was not so scary to speak in a group. we stopped doing this after 4 months as the children became confident), after three years with the same group we could have dialogues that were 90 minutes long... and then a week later another 10 minute one... the most important was the children's interest and focus. Sometimes I had pitched the stimulus wrong and it just fell flat, or something happened and that was more interesting (like a Christmas tree being erected in the middle of the square outside the window... you just cannot compete with that...) or the children were just not in the mood and could not focus. On those days the dialogue was cut short, I made sure that the following week would be a more exciting topic to discuss or whatever, the most important was that this was not forced dialogue where the children were expected to talk, but simply a space where the children could talk, and had the power to explore their ideas together. All the stimuli I used were based from what I learned about the children from the children and also my understanding of childhood. We tried several times to use questions that the children designed themselves... none of these ever worked well... but they did make fabulous chats at the time the children talked about them. In other words I needed to learn the difference between when the children had something on their mind and needed to talk about it right then and there, and that saving it for the philosophy session (although they liked that idea) was not what the child/ren actually needed.

I was always open about where the stimulus came from... I told them I watched their play and their actions so that I could learn. And that they were teaching me to be a better teacher, so I could ask the right questions and plan the right activities, read the right stories, offer the right materials so that they could play and learn. This was part of sharing power. I told them I learned from listening to their philosophy dialogues, they saw me write down observations of their play and take films and photographs... they became masters at telling me what I needed to write and take photos of... because they knew that was power to plan the following weeks. we had tried to plan the weeks together with the children, but they decided it wasted too much of their play time... and they said they trusted me to make good decisions... knowing that they could always give me their input.

This is what the philosophy sessions taught them. That their voice mattered. That I listened. That my agenda was not the only agenda that mattered.

The below image is of a photo I took of a chair in our setting, that I then edited so that it was a more faded and allowed the children to draw themselves sitting and listening. This was one of our philosophy sessions... drawing what sitting to listen looks like and then trying out the various positions (these are 3-4 year olds). We, then, proceeded to draw what it looks like sitting in a position that makes it hard to listen... lots of fabulous images of upside down-ness etc that of course we just had to try with roars of laughter!


Would you rather...

Select two or more photographs of things children don't/like to do, including made up things, like being a super hero, or having a bath with a hippo, or eating a snail - and get the children to think about which one they would rather do and why... That is always an important part of the thinking pause... the think what your answer is... and why that is your answer...

It can be absolutely hilarious... would you rather eat a spider, or a snail or a spicy hot chilli pepper? Would you rather have a bath with a hippo or play hide and seek with a tiger? Would you rather live by a river, or a mountain or the sea? Would you rather be able to fly or be invisible or be the strongest in the world?

The possibilities are endless. it gets the children thinking about which one they would rather do... even when it comes to choices when they would rather do none of them. I have done this with children from age 3 to age 14 and all have enjoyed it the process and we have often giggled quite a lot.

I think shared laughter is a great way to connect and to heal. Not all these philosophy sessions need to be about exploring serious things, there need to be joy for it to work... and in these pandemic times we need joy and laughter for our well-being.


Here are a few possible questions you could ask... you do not need to use them exactly as I have phrased them, you know your children best, the words they are most familiar with, go always from that knowledge of your children and ask questions that they can respond best to (some questions might be too easy or too hard). Also the idea is not just to answer the question, but to also think about why you have answered that way, and to make connections with others...

  1. what do you think would happen if all the animals disappeared from the world?

  2. what do you think would happen if children could fly?

  3. what do you think would happen if all food tasted of carrots?

  4. what do you think would happen if bubbles never popped?

  5. Are any people the same?

  6. How do you make a friend?

  7. what super power would you like to have?

  8. what makes plants, flowers and trees grow?

  9. what is a dream?

  10. are all stories true?

To support thinking and dialogue process amongst the children, we as facilitators can have the following strategies...

1. Questions (What do we not understand here? What questions do we have about this?)

2. Hypotheses (Do you have a new alternative/other suggestions or explanations?)

3. Reasons (What are the reasons for doing so? What evidence is there to believe this?)

4. Example (Can anyone think of an example of this? Can anyone think of a counterexample?)

5. Differences (Can we make a distinction here? Can anyone give a definition?)

6. Connections (Can anyone build on the idea? Or can someone link it with another idea?)

7. Implications (What consequences does this lead to?)

8. Intentions (Is that what was really meant? Is that what we are really saying?)

9. Criteria (What really counts here?)

10. Consistency (Do we have tenacity and common thread? Are these principles / beliefs consistent?)

I would not use all of these strategies in every session, and in the beginning I modelled these strategies, by linking the children's ideas, by paraphrasing the child to see what counted, by giving definitions to enable all children to be included... but I did this carefully, so I did not take over the dialogue, and I also strived to get the other children to do the paraphrasing, or notice the difference or the similarities... all the time scaffolding the children's skills so that I was needed less. Of the three and a half years with the same group, doing philosophy every week from when they were 2/3 to 5/6 there were three dialogues that I would evaluate as truly "successful" if it was being measured by how little I was needed and how much the children could carry a deep dialogue of enquiry themselves. Most weeks there was a need for me to support them, with language, with keeping on topic, with keeping it an inclusive dialogue (so the chattiest children didn't just talk and talk) etc. The majority of the sessions I came out satisfied, quite a lot on a total high, and there were a few where I felt the frustrated and lost and needed to regroup myself with my colleague. Reflecting on the highs and the lows with my colleague was without a doubt the most important part of evolving as a facilitator... being totally open with what didn't work and why was where I learned the most. Really teaching is about being fearless. About being brave enough to to learn from mistakes... and determined enough to keep going, because it takes time. And often the education system is in too much of a hurry to see results that they are rushing through the curriculum and don't spend enough time on the foundations... the well-being of the child, the relationships, the self regulation and self esteem, and the time to understand each learner and for the learner to understand how they learn.. a lot of this is done through play. So philosophy with children, like anything else begins with play.

if I was to explore the question "How do you make friends" (I found this worked much better for dialogues than what is a friend, where the dialogues ended very quickly as it was a too complex question) I would prepare a whole series of possible support questions to help the children reflect about friendship..

for example...

Can you be angry with a friend?

Can you quarrel with a friend?

How do you quarrel with a friend?

How do you get back together?

Do you have to play with someone to be a friend?

Why do you want friends?

How does it feel when you have no friends?

How do you know if you do not have a friend?

Can you have a pretend friend?

It can be good to avoid questions like what to do if you see that someone does not have a friend, or play with…as then it is easy to add adult values to the conversation. The children will reflect on it themselves and be able to make their own decisions.

The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf...

I really like using stories that we know well... because then we can really play with them..

You can read the story several times and in different ways. There are many different variations even tales of three little wolves and the big bad pig (three little wolves and the big bad pigs, the story from the wolf's perspective rather than the pigs,etc etc). The purpose is for the children to realise that there is no one way to tell anything. It is a very simple story for the children to tell themselves and change and play with the content.

It can be good to visit a natural history museum, or similar, or project a life size wolf onto the wall, you can even use the augmented reality on google and see how big a wolf really is (smaller than you think) You can use the pictures to show wolves are not always angry (see below). If you can visit a place with domestic pigs (the one that is usually in the story books) the children get the opportunity to see the pig is actually much bigger than a wolf. You can also look at wild boars, with their tusks they are really quite dangerous.

It may be helpful for you educators to listen to TedTalk “The Danger of the Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to gain a deeper understanding of why we should encourage children to question fairy tales and create new variations.

- ie you can be really creative with how to design the tale. Sometimes the children find that the wolf has a hay fever and sneezes so much that the houses blow down… that he is really kind. You never know what it will be like.

If you use the pictures, you can ask: Can you recognise what feelings the wolves have? Would you like a wolf as a pet? Why not? Are wolves always bad? Why do you think wolves are often bad in fairy tales?

I find that it is much easier for children to discuss emotions, including their own emotions, when using animals... and wolves not only allow children to safely explore possible emotions that they are experiencing, but also breaks down stereotypes of what is often projected as bad...

In play you can challenge the children - how many different ways can you jump in a pool of water? How many different ways can you get across a hop-scotch? How many different ways can you draw a house? How many different ways can you sort lego? Sorting is a great way for children not only to see there are many ways to do something, but is also honing their mathematical skills..

I see that this post is getting long... and what I will do is end here and write another post in the future with more suggestions of philosophical dialogues and experiences that could be had. Here I have not included what can be done with the very youngest (1-3 year olds) as that is quite a different approach as it is not as verbal reliant.

Creating safe spaces for children to talk freely about their experiences and ideas... including their fears and worries, will be paramount for children dealing with pandemic and post-pandemic trauma or worries... philosophy with children can be one way to create that safe space.

I will be sharing more in the future - in the mean time here are some more posts I have written on the topic

also Here are the two posts already written as part of this series... The Story of... Healing

The Art of Healing... yet to come... The Story of healing chapter 2 (looking at storytelling as a way to process emotions)

Natural Healing (looking at outdoor play and learning and nature - which there will be a big focus on more outdoor learning inspiration... so I will include lots of photos to inspire)

The Healing Powers of Play (how creating time for play is important for children and educators alike)

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