Ideas for Engaging Philosophically With Your Children

Here are suggestions for prompts to discuss some philosophical topics that are often of interest to children.

As always, the best place to begin is with what the children in your lives are wondering about. Here are suggestions for non-COVID-related topics and prompts.

Do you know you have hands?

Philosophers question what others take for granted. Asking children whether they know they have hands (or feet or eyes or ears) can be a great way to have fun while also practicing careful thinking. If the child in your life says “Of course I know I have hands” you can ask them why. They might reply that they can see them. Now is your time to get creative about things we see that are not always real. For example, I see Mt. Rainier from a window and it looks like it is six inches tall. Might my eyes be wrong about that? If they are wrong about that, then couldn’t they be wrong about us having hands? The same kind of doubt can be cast on all our senses. See if you and the children in your life manage to convince yourselves you do know you have hands or if you decide you may never know whether you have hands!

Is it better to be a dog or a human?

If you have access to the book I am the Dog by Daniel Pinkwater (or an online read aloud), it is a great prompt for reflecting on this question. You can easily do this without the book, however. You can watch a video online of some dogs scampering around or think about a dog you know. What are the benefits and downsides to being a human? What about the benefits and downsides of being a dog? Is it better to be a dog or a human?

What are your demands?

In the book Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin, a group of animals refuse to produce for a farmer until their demands are met. Read the story together (or watch a read aloud of the book online), then ask your child or children to make their own list of demands. Give them full freedom to write whatever they want on the list. When they are done, go through the list and think together about which of the demands seem like good ideas and which ones might have unfortunate consequences. Would it, in fact, be better to never have homework?

What’s the Point?

Have your child or children answer the prompt “I am wondering, what’s the point of ______?” with as many responses as they can think of. Make a list of their answers then talk about some of them, discussing what the point is of the thing in question. Might be the kind of thing that feels important but really is not? Perhaps it is the kind of thing that feels insignificant but is in fact quite important.

Thinking about Imaginary Friends

This activity works best for younger children. There are several books that can prompt thinking about imaginary friends. You might try:

These books can be used alone or one after another for a series of conversations about imaginary friends. You can read the book(s) and then ask the children what they are wondering about, using their questions as a starting place. You can also think together about some of these questions:

  • Are imaginary friends real?
  • Where do imaginary friends go if you forget about them?
  • Are imaginary friends better than regular friends?
  • Can imaginary friends do things without you being there to imagine them?
  • Is it possible to leave your imaginary friend behind somewhere?
  • Do adults have imaginary friends? Should they?

Another option is to have children draw an imaginary friend and have them reflect on and talk about what would make for a great imaginary friend.

Mr. Brown’s Precepts in Wonder

Many 4th, 5th, and 6th graders have read the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio and will be familiar with Mr. Brown’s monthly precepts. These are inspirational sayings the teacher, Mr. Brown, puts on his board monthly for his students. For example, the precept for September is “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”

You can look through all of Mr. Brown’s precepts and think about them together. This would make for good dinner time conversation. Do you think the precept is right? Are there exceptions to the precept that need to be considered? Are there situations where following that precept would cause unfortunate consequences?

You can have your child or children find the precepts in the book if you have it, or you can find a list of Mr. Brown’s precepts here.

Contributing to the Community

In Frederick by Leo Lionni, a family of field mice are preparing for winter by gathering food and other necessary supplies. Frederick the mouse spends his time staring at the meadow and half-asleep dreaming. When the other mice ask him what he is doing, Frederick replies that he is gathering sun rays, colors, and words for the long winter. During winter, when food supplies run low, the mice remember Frederick’s fall activities and ask him about his supplies. Frederick proceeds to describe the rays of the sun and colors and begins reciting poetry.

Using the book or an online read-aloud, you can discuss the nature of work and whether Frederick is truly working during the fall. What does it mean to contribute to a community? Are some contributions more important than others? Do those who grow food and provide essential services make more of a contribution to the community than musicians, artists, and poets?

What is Art?

Give your child or children a piece of paper and something with which to draw. On one side of the paper, have them draw something they think is art and on the other side of the paper, have them draw something they don’t think is art.

If there are multiple children, you can have them guess which of the others’ drawings are meant to be art and which are meant to be not art. If there is only one child, then an adult can guess. Then, have the person who made the drawing explain what made one thing art and the other not art. You can think together about what art is and whether everything can be considered art.

Is it dessert?

Using whatever piece of fruit you have in the house, ask your child or children if that fruit is dessert. With this simple prompt, a rich discussion about the nature of dessert will develop. Is anything you eat after a meal dessert? Is it dessert if you ate it without eating a meal first? Can it be dessert if it is a healthy food? Does something need to be done to the item to make it dessert (e.g., if it is an apple, does it need to be turned into apple pie to be dessert)?

Is it soup? (this is a version of “Is it Dessert?” for older students since the characters in the video have strong Scottish accents that might be challenging for younger children to follow and the video takes a darkly comical turn at the end).

Watch the “What Makes Soup, Soup?” video below and see if you can collectively determine what makes soup, soup. Do you find yourselves coming up with counter-examples every time you land on a criterion for what makes soup soup? What about other common items? What makes a table a table? A chair a chair? See if you can come up with the conditions that make something what it is without running into counter-examples that make you have to refine your conditions further. Is it even worth one’s time to try to define things like soup? Are there things in life that we know what they are even if we cannot define them minutely? Make a list of those kinds of things.