Distinguishing between what we need and what we want is challenging for all of us, children and adults. One of my colleagues at the Center for Philosophy for Children, Karen Emmerman, has developed a great classroom exercise for thinking about the differences between wants and needs.
Step One: Identifying Wants and Needs
Give the students a handout with the following questions:
1. What are some things you want?
2. What are some things you need?
3. What is the difference between what you want and what you need?
4. Do all people have the same wants?
5. Do all people have the same needs?
6. What should we do if what one person wants conflicts with what another person needs?
Give the students sufficient time to think about their responses and write them on their handouts.
Step Two: Distinguishing Wants and Needs
When everyone has had a chance to think about the above questions, facilitate a large group conversation, using two lists on the board: Wants and Needs. This generally spurs a discussion about the difference between wants and needs and whether something that is a want for one person could count as a need for another.
It is likely that you will not get through the whole list of questions in one session, so you can pick up where you left off in a later philosophy session. This exercise could take a few sessions to get through if you find you are having rich discussions.
Step Three: Ranking Needs
Provide students with the following list of needs (make any adjustments you’d like) and a blank numbered list from 1 to 10. Ask them to rank the needs with 1 the most important and 10 the least important.
• Safe shelter
• Family (it’s helpful to clarify you don’t mean literally having parents since clearly we need to have had parents in order to exist; this is more about having people who love you and help care for you)
• Medical Care
• Ability to pursue projects or interests that help define who you are (depending on the age of the children, you may want to alter the language here; this item is aimed at the sorts of life projects that give life meaning and make it worth living, like working to become a poet or being excellent at sports).
It is helpful to have the students work in groups of 4-6 for step three. These allows them to think together and work through any disagreements about the rankings.
When the groups have finished ranking the needs, pull the class together as one group and ask each group to report what they put first through fifth. This works better than going through their lists one number at a time.
Finally, facilitate a discussion about the differences in the rankings. Why do some groups think food is more important than education? Why did other groups think medical care is most important? After this discussion is over, go through their rankings for sixth through tenth.
These discussions should lead students (and teachers!) to think more carefully about what constitutes wants and needs, and how to distinguish between the two.