Amy Leask: "(...)a learning environment that encourages big questions creates a bond of trust between students and their teachers."
Amy Leask is an author, educator, and children’s interactive media producer. She’s the founder of Red T Media in Ontario, Canada, and delights in finding new ways to reach curious little minds.
Can you recall the first time you heard about philosophy for children (p4c)?
I heard about philosophy of childhood while I was an undergraduate, but nothing about philosophy for children until I was teaching at the college level. There were a lot of intelligent young adults in my philosophy classes who had never really put together an argument of their own, and who didn’t realize they were allowed to disagree, or think critically about the ideas presented to them. Like most P4C advocates, I thought philosophy needed to be introduced at a younger age, and when I looked into it further, I found I wasn’t alone. There was a growing community of philosophers who wanted to bring a new kind of thinking to a younger audience.
How did you started working with p4c?
While I was teaching philosophy to big kids, I started writing material that presented philosophical ideas to children. I wanted to create something fun and entertaining that they could read to themselves, but that also encouraged them to ask questions, and to embrace logic and reason. Over the years, my original manuscript has turned into a number of books, as well as cartoons, games, apps, and teacher materials. Presently, I run an independent multimedia company that focuses almost exclusively on P4C, in interactive formats.
Do you think p4c is necessary to children? Why?
21st century learning is founded on thinking practices that, ironically, have been around for millennia in philosophy. Children today may be digital natives, but they still need low-tech skills like critical thinking, problem solving, communication and creativity in order to successfully navigate school, the working world, and their personal life.
I see P4C as an effort to teach children survival skills, but also to empower them, and to engage them in a practice that’s shared by all humans. Beyond the necessary parts, children really enjoy asking big questions, and it’s actually fun for them to engage in discussion. Why not make the most of what comes naturally to them?
Nowadays children ( @ Portugal) have a lot of activities at school and after school. Why should we take philosophy to schools?
It’s expected that teachers cover things like critical thinking and problem solving in their curriculum, but both are fairly difficult things to teach, especially in a crowded classroom, with limited time and resources. P4C enables teachers to reach so many learning objectives. What’s more, I think a learning environment that encourages big questions creates a bond of trust between students and their teachers. If a child knows his or her teacher isn’t afraid to dive into inquiry, he or she will feel more supported and comfortable going beneath the surface of ideas.
P4C has cross-curricular applications, and is helpful in supporting children’s mental health, anti-bullying programs, and an appreciation of diversity. It works wonders, both inside and outside the classroom, and it helps children become well-rounded thinkers.
What makes a question a philosophical question – from a p4c point of view?
I think most philosophical questions have a “why” component to them. We have to use different lines of thinking to answer them, different than we would use to answer a scientific question. I’d say a philosophical question is one that has more than one answer, although some answers are still better than others. Philosophical questions are about our place in the universe, our relationships with other beings, and about ourselves.
The beautiful thing about P4C is that children seem especially adept at asking these kinds of questions (and taking their parents by surprise in doing so). It’s a privilege and a pleasure to help them reason their way through them.
What’s the biggest challenge p4c faces, nowadays?
Philosophy itself is in need of rebranding. It has a reputation of being for adults, and for belonging only in the academy. Most grown-ups, let alone children, don’t know much about it, and those who do know about it are often intimidated by it. The challenge lies in extending the reach of philosophy and making it part of people’s everyday lives. It needs to be mainstream, and people need to know how helpful, how interesting, and how much fun it is. We need to find ways to demonstrate that it really is for everyone.
Can you give the teachers and the parents some kid of advice to help them deal with the children’s questions?
First and foremost, don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know. As adults, we fear that in admitting this, we’ll be letting our children down, that they’ll no longer have confidence in us. However, it’s actually quite liberating, and being vulnerable in front of a child like this can encourage trust. What could be more enriching than exploring a problem together, and learning together?
Besides that, it’s important to recognize that children do philosophy differently. They might only want to ponder big questions for short periods of time, and they often do so through art projects, science experiments, or dramatic role-play. Philosophy is still philosophy, even when it’s done with toys, books, and games.
Did the children ever surprised you with a question? Can you share that question with us?
I’m always surprised by questions children ask. They seem to get right at the heart of the matter, wondering why we exist, how they’re supposed to behave, and who decides what’s fair. Their answers surprise me even more. I once did a workshop in which an older child brought his preschool-aged sister. She spent most of the time running in circles, doodling with crayons, and giggling, and we assumed she wasn’t listening. But when we posed the question “What makes a human?” she blurted out “Love makes us human, silly!” and then went back to running and playing, like it was nothing. It took the discussion in a totally different direction, and it reminded me that even very young children can surprise us with their insights.