Philosophizing with Children: Discussing Bravery, Fear and Risk with Picture-Books

By Ariel Sykes, Assistant Director of the Ethics Institute

When I tell people that one of my favorite things to do as an educator is to do philosophy with young people, I often get the response, “Really?” This reaction is not surprising because even as adults we may find the idea of thinking and talking about abstract concepts difficult. Some of us think back to our exposure to Philosophy in college and remember feeling lost or bored by the experience. And maybe some of us think that philosophy is not worthwhile or not something children are capable of doing.

It is here where I think it is helpful to draw a distinction between “learning about philosophy” and “doing philosophy.” The former may broadly be understood as learning about the canon of philosophy: key figures, history of ideas, different fields of philosophy, as well as the logic and argumentation structures that ground the canon. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I had a positive experience of doing philosophy. (Though in all honesty, I was a very philosophical child and just didn’t realize that my endless questioning was a form of philosophizing). The practice of wondering about the world, reflecting on our experiences, sharing and critically examining our ideas, and gaining new understandings is what I find most valuable about Philosophy. With my almost 15 years of experience philosophizing with young people, I have come to firmly believe that all people, regardless of age or ability, have the natural inclinations to philosophize and will find joy and meaning in philosophizing with others. I have found that the power of philosophy is that it helps us learn more about ourselves and those around us, and through the process allows us to grow individually and collectively.

I am very honored to be a part of the Ethics Institute at Kent Place School, where I can engage in ethical dialogue with students, families, faculty and staff. It is amazing to be a part of an organization that sees the value of philosophizing with others and embraces it through a variety of programming. In many ways, the Ethics Institute is helping to move the philosophy for children movement forward by ensuring that it has a foothold in K-12 schools and advocating for more school communities to embrace ethics as a necessary component of their curriculum.

The first program to devote itself to children’s philosophical practice opened in 1974 at Montclair State University, and was coined The Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC). Since then, the movement has spread to over 30 countries and evolved into many different forms; there is now a variety of pedagogical methods and innovative curriculum models for philosophizing with people (young and old). For a summary of the scope of philosophy for children today, check out the resources on the International Council for Philosophical Inquiry with Children (ICPIC).

For the purpose of this blog post, I would like to introduce readers to the Picture Book Philosophy model that was popularized by Dr. Thomas Wartenberg. For over 30 years, Dr. Wartenberg has been advocating for the use of picture books (that teachers and parents can find already on their shelves) in guiding philosophical discussions with children. To this end, Dr. Wartenberg created a guide for parents  and a teaching manual for educators as well as developed a free online resource of lesson plans to use with picture books.

In connection with the Ethics Institute’s “Topic of the Week” on the concept of “Risk,” I would like to share an additional question set for the “Dragons and Giants” discussion plan from the book “Frog and Toad Together” by Arnold Lobel. You can find the full discussion plan here.The hope is that by having such a discussion with your child(ren) you can begin to think carefully about what it means to take positive risks and how to decide when risk-taking is a good idea.

Chapter Summary

Reproduced with permission from Thomas Wartenberg 

Frog and Toad have been reading stories about brave people who fight dragons and giants. Toad says that those people were brave because they were never afraid. In order to see whether they are brave, Frog and Toad set off to climb a mountain. On their climb, they encounter a number of dangers: a snake who thinks they are his lunch, a hawk who would like nothing better than to eat them, and an avalanche that threatens to flatten them. As they run back to Toad’s house, they keep saying that they are not scared. But are they? And would being scared mean they weren’t brave? These are the sorts of questions raised by this delightful story.

Question Set on Risk & Bravery

Frog and Toad encounter a snake, a hawk, and falling rocks when they climbed the mountain

  1. What made climbing the mountain risky? For something to be risky, does it have to be dangerous?
  2. When have you taken a risk recently?

When the snake tries to eat Frog and Toad, they jump away and Toad starts shaking.

  1. How do you feel when you are taking a risk?

Frog says that trying to climb a mountain should tell him and Toad whether they are brave, and they kept saying “We are not afraid”

  1.  Do you think taking risks requires not being afraid?
  2. Can you be brave and not take risks?
  3. Has there been a time when you were afraid while taking a risk?

When Frog and Toad get back to Toad’s house, Toad jumps into bed and pulls the cover up over his head. Frog jumps into the closet and shuts the door.

  1. Do you think it was a good idea for Frog and Toad to climb the mountain?
  2. Is it always good to take risks? When can taking a risk be a bad thing?
  3. How do you decide when to take a risk and when not to take a risk?

Tips for Parents & Teachers

  • If you are leading this discussion with multiple children, consider creating some “talking rules” to help structure the conversation. These can be the rules you already have in place in your classroom or at home. If you don’t have any, here are some suggested rules from Thomas Wartenberg:
    • Say what you think.
    • Listen to what others say.
    • Figure out if you Agree or Disagree with what has been said
    • Why do you think what you do?

  • Use the discussion plan in the way that makes sense to you, the order and timing of when to ask a question or move on is not meant to be prescriptive. Listen to what the chil(dren) are saying, and perhaps move to a question farther down the list if you think it will help them continue exploring an idea. You can also play around with pausing as you read aloud, asking certain questions at key moments in the story.

  • Encourage your child(ren) to expand on their thinking and connect to the thinking of others. It is also important to not tell them what you think, since the discussion be focused on exploring and developing their ideas. You can do this by asking “why” or encouraging them by saying enthusiastically “please tell me more.” To help with active listening, you can ask “Does your idea about [x] connect to [name’s]?” or make an observation, “It sounds like you are agreeing [or disagreeing] with [name], is that true?”