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What Is Freedom? Teaching Kids Philosophy in a Pandemic

“It involves thinking outside the box,” 13-year-old Dylan McDermott of North London observed. “In school, it’s like this is right and that’s wrong. Here, both views can be right.”

Matilda Sarsfield, age 13, of Bracknell, Berkshire, agreed: “We’re having a balanced, calm discussion, not shouting at each other or protesting each other. I’ve seen what that does. It just causes violence and hatred, which in the end backfires against you.”

A not-yet-published study conducted at the University of Montreal, which tracked young people over a 10-year period, suggests that philosophy training at an early age helps children to avoid dogmatic or radicalized stances later in life.

“We found that kids who’ve done this work speak much more thoughtfully, less defensively,” said Natalie Fletcher, a professor involved in the study and director of Brila Youth Projects, which runs summer philosophy camps for children. “They are less overwhelmed if someone disagrees with them, there is this openness to doubting, to ambiguity and complexity that wasn’t there before.”

Dr. Fletcher helped develop PhiloQuests, a collection of online exercises in English and French for children that focus on pandemic-related themes like solitude, hope and loss. Some activities are designed for family mealtime. Adults are invited to participate in the discussions, but not to dominate.

“Parents can do this with their children, but they need to understand how to hold back,” explained Ellen Cahill, a teacher at Bradford School in Montclair, N.J., who engages her kindergarten students in philosophical discussions during weekly sessions in the classroom and now online.

“Parents want to teach children, they want to provide answers. To do inquiry like this, they have to help children come up with their own answers. They must learn not to say, ‘That’s right!’ or ‘No, that isn’t right’ and rather say, ‘Tell me why you think that.’”

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