By the age of 3-4 years old a typically developing child will be talking using simple sentences. Many children will be using more complex sentences using words like ‘and’ and ‘because’. They will be starting to understand simple questions and will be asking questions of their own. Most prolifically ‘why?’ Most children will now be experts at role play and imaginary play and will have absorbed three to four years of language, stories, television and song. They will be able to understand emotions when supported and starting to understand that their own actions can have an effect on other people’s emotions.
Although they will not necessarily have the best moral judgement themselves they do now have a sense of justice, most often knowing when something is ‘bad/wrong’ or ‘good/right’ and, being the most pressing issue in a young child’s life, the concept of fairness. This will usually raise it’s head with both unreasonable requests (‘I want a big chocolate bar not a small one. That’s not fair’) and those that are more reasonable (‘He isn’t sharing. It’s my turn’).
Also on their personal and social development they will be starting to be able to imagine themselves in other real life scenarios. For example they can imagine then answer the question “How would you feel if you got lost?” which they probably weren’t able to do in their toddler years. They can also understand and answer more complex questions more effectively, though the answers may conform to their own child logic and not necessarily to the logic of adults.
Philosophical Skill – Listening and Attention
Philosophical Skill – Imagination and Social Skills
Philosophical Skill – Problem Solving
Philosophical Skill – Language Development.
Philosophical Skill – Problem Solving and Making Choices
Philosophical Skill – Question Words
Philosophical Skill – Imagination and Awareness
Philosophical Skill – Counter Realities.
Ah toddlers. Tiny little dictators with great big emotions. It is the toddler years where you first get a glimpse of a child’s true personality. They have done their learning on how to be alive and survive. They have learnt so, so much over the first two years of their life and now (oh no!) they have learnt that they are a master of their own fate. Now the curiosity is really ready to kick in.
Toddlers are entering such an amazing phase of childhood. They go from being little sponges who pleasantly take in the world around them to independent, stubborn, excitable souls. They are so happy and delighted that their knees go wobbly from laughter. They are so excited that they squeal. They run and spin as fast as they can. They are so angry that they have to scram and kick and throw things. They are so devastated that they sob their heart out with big fat tears rolling down their cheeks and a “why, why, why?” look on their little face. They are so in love that they can’t bear not to be in physical contact with you or a beloved toy. They are so filled with hate that if the cat comes any closer they will absolutely pull it’s tail and shout “NO CAT” at it. Toddlers really are discovering all of the emotions that the world has to offer. All those emotions you have spent the last two years teaching them about are now being experienced and they understand the words you use to describe them but cannot yet manage them.
It is around this age that toddlers really get a hold of imaginary play too. They have little adventures with figures or cars, they make you pretend cups of tea or use boxes as boats. They take all of the things they have seen on television or heard in stories and build the storylines, narratives, characters and situations into their play. They are beginning to learn about what is real but also have the ability to imagine other ‘realities’ and put themselves into different character roles as they begin to learn and practise empathy. A lot of their role play is based on things they have seen or experienced themselves and this is a philosophical skill too – to build up opinions and a bank of knowledge based on your own experiences.
Toddlers are problem solvers too. They get a car stuck in a play garage and will try different ways to get it out. They want a biscuit from a shelf in the cupboard so will drag something over to climb up and get it. They begin to try to dress and undress themselves. They figure out emotional problem solving as they manipulate adults into behaving the way they want them to. They can look at a toy that they want in the bottom of their toy box and can anticipate different possible approaches, scenarios and outcomes, on a basic level, as they figure out how to get to the said toy.
Toddlers are little philosophers in training so embrace the craziness and have fun with it.
During the first three years, a child's brain triples in weight and establishes about 1,000 trillion nerve connections and this starts from this very moment they are born. Here are the ways in which we are already making our babies into philosophers. You are already doing it, you just need to reframe your thinking a little bit to realise HOW you are doing it.
Philosophical Skill – Curiosity
The parietal lobe in baby’s brain makes them primed to begin to learn about the sensory aspects of their world. You help babies develop their sense of curiosity in everything you introduce them to and there is no better place to start than with their basic physical senses.
Philosophical Skill – Language.
Philosophical Skill – Listening
Philosophical Skill – Social Awareness and Higher Level Thinking
So did I teach you anything you don’t already know? Did I tell you to do anything you aren’t already doing as a parent or Early Years practitioner? I thought not. That is the beauty of a philosophical approach to pedagogy. For the most part you are already doing it, and have been for some time.
Babies are born as natural philosophers. All they have is ‘why?’. They have spent nine months with dulled and filtered lights and noises. The loudest noise they have heard is the constant, predictable beat of their mum’s heart and shwoosh, shwoosh of her blood stream. Then suddenly, without warning, they are thrust into the world; the noisy, bright chaotic world full of sights, sounds and assaults to the senses. They have no preconceptions, no opinions, no language. This lasts for mere seconds.
They instantly begin to soak in the world. It starts from the most basic knowledges – that hurts, that feels nice, that’s interesting. The longer they are in the world the more they soak in and digest. Soon they learn who their special people are, what to do when they are hungry and that they voice makes sound and that sound makes people react. Before you know it the googles, coos and social smiles come and Hey Presto! You have a mini human ready to learn about the world. Sure you won’t get a Socrates worthy enquiry out of them. More likely to get a bit of milky vomit and a loose nappy. You do, however, have a tiny sponge who is ready to learn.
So what better time than to start building a mini-Plato. Guess what – you are already doing it. You fuel their curiosities every day by introducing new experiences, new tastes, textures, smells and sounds. You build their vestibular and proprioceptive curiosity and awareness as you hug them tight, wrap them in sleep bags, bounce them on your knee and carry them around. You build their language as you speak and sing to them. You build their sense of the imaginary as you use silly voices. You show them that their vocalisations have a purpose and effect as you respond to their cries or copy their sounds. This is the time when tiny humans learn that their voice has power. It is the time where they first begin to make personal and social connections.
To begin their philosophical journey we make sure that they spend time looking at faces – ours or other people’s. We pull happy faces, sad faces, angry faces. We mirror their facial expressions. We explore different sights, sounds and textures. We introduce different tastes when they are ready for food. Perhaps opting for baby-led weaning where an awful lot of problem solving goes into your baby figuring out how to get that food to their mouth. Through all of this we talk. We talk to the babies, throwing every word we know at them.
We don’t dumb down what we say in the hope it will be more easily understood. We use all of our words, because if a child does not hear them they will not learn them. If a 6 month old does not understand “happy girl” then what harm will it be to instead say “You are such a happy girl. You are smiling so I know you are happy”? The same message with the same key word emphasised (and repeated) but with thirteen extra words used and a linking explanation – you are happy and I know that because you are smiling. Let’s give our tiny dots those extra words when we can. Not all the time, of course. As parents or practitioners we definitely don’t have time (in our boring adult world) to be keeping up that level of pre-meditated talk all the time. After all there are dishes to be done and assessments to be highlighted and tracked but we can do it more. A lot more, and before you know it it has become a habit.
If you are going to plan your own philosophy enquiries then it is important that you make sure that your question truly is a philosophical one.
It may be worth noting here, however, that some questions for this age group do not necessarily need to be truly philosophical. Firstly because you may be focussing on building a specific skill in a session and so it may be easier to do this with less philosophical questions. Secondly because a 3-5 year old has an entirely different view on the world, and a different bank of knowledge, to a 10 year old. For example, you could not use the question “What are clouds made of?” or “Are scary things always bad?” for a philosophical enquiry for 10 year olds. They would pretty quickly be able to Google you an answer to the first question and say “no”, possibly accompanied by a scathing look, to the second. But to a 4 year old those questions are philosophical ones.
When it comes to Philosophy for Children (as opposed to actual philosophy in the adult world) whether a question is philosophical or not depends entirely on your audience so don’t worry too much about whether the questions you choose are truly philosophical and instead base it on your knowledge of the children in your class. Some of the questions I have enjoyed using are not truly philosophical, in other words we could say that there is an exact answer that does not need debate, however for a young child who does not know much about the world it is a philosophical question.
That said it is good practice for you as a facilitator to begin to identify what a philosophical question is so here is a quick guide.
Children are born into this world without preconceptions, without adult logic, with no knowledge of the ‘truth’ or ‘facts’. To children all things are new.
From the minute we sing children a nursery rhyme, read a book or pop on the TV they are presented with talking animals, magic, superheroes who can fly and wizards with magical cloaks that make them invisible. We tell them little white lies about the Tooth Fairy and Santa while telling them not to lie themselves. Perhaps this is hypocritical but Terry Pratchett suggests in his book, The Hogfather, that these fantasy-based lies create an essential way of thinking in children. A way of thinking in which they can learn to suspend disbelief and so later learn about and accept invisible concepts such as justice, love and hope. In a more scientific vein, this helps a child to later accept equally invisible concepts (to a child’s eye at any rate) such as photosynthesis and atoms.
The 2017 National Geographic article ‘Why We Lie: The Science Behind Our Deceptive Ways’, claims that children under the age of 6 lie less than any other age group. But these are the age group that get lied to the most. Why? One reason for this is that we adults struggle to explain the big things. You know, those big concepts like death, love, justice and truth. We lie about the things that we don’t think our children are ready to know about and about the things we don’t understand ourselves. Perhaps some of our lies would be better as philosophical introductions.
Picture this. A child has a very poorly grandparent. The child asks you, in class, “What will happen to Grandad when he dies?” What do you say? You don’t know what the child’s parents want you to say. Perhaps the child has not even asked them yet. You don’t want to impose your own opinions or over step the mark. You don’t want to devalue their question or feelings by brushing the question off. So what do you do? You turn the child into a philosopher, after all isn’t that what we all are when it comes to trying to comprehend and cope with death? You instinctively say “What do you think happens?” and mentally curse yourself for taking the cowards way out. But is this really a cowardly attempt to not have to answer the question or is it actually giving the child an opportunity to explore what their own thoughts are? When it comes down to it can we really claim that we, educated adults, have any more idea of what happens to our soul after death than a three year old child does? I would say not. In this, and in many other areas, we are as equally all at sea as each other. The child and the adult are both philosophers on the same playing field and in the same league.
There are no limits and no constraints in the way a child sees the world until they begin to grow up. That is when we adults make them to learn to live, and think, by the rules. Those depressingly limiting rules of correct and incorrect thinking, of what is a sensible thought and what is a silly one. P4C itself has rules to some extent, in the process and skills used within an enquiry, but there is no rule about what children can and can’t think within the P4C session as long as they are showing respect for each other.
So who better to philosophise do you think? A ten-year old who is ploughing towards SATS at a worrying speed with a few years under their belt of learning that answers in class can be right or wrong? The teens who now know there is no Santa or magic, now starting to learn about the scary side of growing up as they work their way through puberty and high school? Or is it the 3 and 4 year olds who still believe that rain is the angels crying, that if you squash a worm it’s mummy will be wondering why it hasn’t come home for lunch yet and that the world was created by a magical frog? (That one came out of my enquiry titled “How was the world made?”)
In the Early Years children can maintain the luxury of not worrying that something they say might be ‘silly’ or ‘wrong’ and it is in this silly wrongness that they can really explore the world in a philosophical way and become the inventors and innovators of the future. What would the world be like if adults were still filled with that wonder and those endless imaginary possibilities? Perhaps some of us are. Perhaps that is why we chose Early Years as our home.
Miss Magical Mess is a pre-school teacher and P4C Level 2B facilitator. After a shaky start as a P4C facilitator (P4C with 3 year olds... are you kidding?) Miss Magical Mess created her own approach to P4C and enquiry model and is now a big fan.