Publish at November 18 2020 Updated September 08 2022

Why and how can philosophy be used to open up children's imaginations?

A transformative educational program

African children

Why integrate philosophy into the elementary school curriculum? How can this project be carried out to open up children's imaginations. But first, let's briefly situate the debate around teaching philosophy to children. 

Integrating Philosophy into School Curricula

"If education is supposed to teach young people to think, why does the system produce so many unthinking people? "

This question would lead Matthew Lipman , an American philosopher, to propose a philosophy course to "teach children to think, as such a course would develop reasoning skills; (and) also is a way to increase self-esteem." Subsequently, he demonstrated how "philosophy for children" can improve the moral, social and cognitive development of children. According to him, children must be introduced to philosophy if we are to have responsible adults capable of critical thinking. 

In the same vein, educators from around the world have created the International Council of Philosophical Inquiry with Children (ICPIC) in 1985 to project the international impact of Philosophy for and with Children. Currently, philosophy for children projects can be found in colleges, universities and associations in more than 60 countries around the world.

Why is philosophy suitable for opening up children's imaginations?

Simply because children's minds are highly creative and more receptive to philosophical ideas.

Maturity often brings "inertia and a lack of inventiveness," notes Matthews. Yet children are often big dreamers with vivid imaginations. This implies that children's lack of knowledge about the norms of science and society may put them in an advantageous position to do philosophy at an early age. Adults have an unfortunate tendency to easily accept the "natural" order of things, without too often questioning it. But this is not the case for children. You only have to observe or talk to children from 3 to 7 years old to see how rich their imagination is. If they are initiated early enough to philosophical reflection, they will develop their critical thinking skills more quickly, an essential faculty in this era of globalization.

Bref, education in philosophy allows children and adolescents to develop complex thinking . This improves their reasoning skills, critical thinking, attention span and creative thinking. Thus, denying children ideas, procedures and doubting their philosophical reasoning abilities is like denying them air and expecting them not to choke. 

How do we teach philosophy to children? 

In schools, philosophy for children is not about teaching the views of particular philosophers such as Socrates, Jacques Chatué, Towa, Njoh Mouéllè and others, but rather about equipping children with the tools to think, engaging them in the search for meaning.

This article  presents an experiment by doctoral student Samuel Nepton, who encouraged skeptical Franco-Manitoban teachers to adopt a philosophical approach relying on play, in their lessons with their students. Using a text or excerpt from children's literature, the children reflected on concepts such as friendship, family, beauty, etc. All of these discussions aimed to better structure their thinking. This other resource features a testimonial by Virginie Siegenthaler, a professor at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lausanne (UNIL), who reminds us of the value  of transmitting a philosophical way of thinking to children.

Why teach philosophy to children in Africa?

Education in Africa has been used by colonial governments to perpetuate rote learning and passive acceptance of facts, while discouraging critical thinking, especially among children. Criticism of colonial and postcolonial education in Africa as perpetuating cultural and intellectual bondage and the devaluation of traditional African cultures has led some African intellectuals to demand a reappropriation of pre-colonial forms of education to rediscover the roots of African identity.

For other intellectuals  on the other hand, education in postcolonial Africa will only make sense if it is grounded in critical thinking and draws its content and methodology from African beliefs and philosophies of life.

Thus, a philosophy for children in Africa will involve "much African philosophical thought, knowledge, and wisdom" . In this light and with reference to Africa, Mkhabela and Luthuli explain that: "The greatest task facing African philosophy of education is to transform the mentality and the representation that black people have of themselves. It is this process that will make them responsible as individuals, not only to their fellow citizens, but also to their country."

A means of transformation

Introducing philosophy to children at an early age is one of the effective ways to transform these children into thoughtful, responsible, progressive citizens. The introduction of philosophy to children can become one of the transformative educational programs through which Africa and the world can emerge from the ills they face. If philosophy has contributed to the human, intellectual, cultural and economic development of other nations and cultures, it can also contribute in Africa. It is enough to rethink it and put it at the service of society, starting with children. 

Illustration: Bill Wegener - Iwaria

Notes and references

Lipman M 1988. Philosophy goes to school. Philadelphia: Temple University Press

Matthews G. 1980. Philosophy and the young child. (p.18) Cambridge: Harvard University Press.         

Accorinti S 2000. Philosophy for Children in Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Education.

Université Laval, Pousser les enfants à philosopher

Ngnaoussi Elongué Christian, La Philosophie Du Jeu, Un Langage Universel [The Philosophy Of Play, A Universal Language], in Arts et Culture

University of Lausanne, La philo pour mini-penseurs.
For the purposes of this article, child here refers to age groups between 4 and 18 years old. 

Philipp W. Rosemann, "Thinking the Other: African Philosophy in Search of Identity," Revue Philosophique de Louvain 96, no. 2 (1998): 285-303,

Tedla E 1995. Sankofa: African thoughts and education. New York: Peter Lang.     

Gyekye K 1997. Tradition and modernity: philosophical reflections on the African experience. New York: Oxford University Press.      

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