Using picture books and philosophical conversation to develop your child’s thinking and understanding.
By Diane Horsten
Do you feel like you are on a quiz game show with the amount of questions your young children ask?
According to a British study, young children ask about 73 questions a day with parents finding themselves unable to answer half of them (Elsworthy, 2017). Surely, if you are going to be bombarded by questions daily, it makes sense to ‘make them count for something’ and add some critical thinking into the mix.
Much has been written about the benefits of reading to your children, but when you add philosophical conversation, it enhances the experience.
Matthew Lipman developed Philosophy for Children (P4C) in the 1970s, when he witnessed first-hand the underdeveloped reasoning skills of his students at Columbia University. Nine years ago, Professor Karin Murris introduced me to P4C at Holy Rosary School. Little did I know how much my teaching would change, with the most obvious result being the amount of questions children are allowed to and encouraged to ask. Questions drive learning. When we ask questions, it stimulates our curiosity and as we search for answers, the learning becomes meaningful.
Young children are natural philosophers, as they try to understand the world around them, asking questions that deal with huge concepts. For example,
• Do numbers end?
• How can you be different but still have friends?
• What does mercy mean?
• How can I use my imagination?
Thinking takes time and with our busy days as parents, it is not always possible to explore the questions our children ask. By providing a dedicated time to read with your children and explore questions, you will be implementing the easiest tip in the world to foster reasoning and understanding.
TIP 1. Good quality picture books
Always start with a good quality
picture book. One that opens up
the ‘big ideas’ (or concepts – such
as, love, hope, race, faith, truth,
religion). Books, such as Anthony
Browne’s Little Beauty or
Piggybook, and Davide Cali’s The
Enemy, put big ideas front and
centre. Before reading the book,
identify the big ideas or concepts
that are hidden in its story. This will
help you to prepare for the
conversation that may follow.
However, children frequently
surprise us and identify concepts
completely different to our own,
and we need to be prepared to
follow their lead. Go where their
learning leads you.
Book list available at
TIP 2. Model Thinking
Once you have read the book,
allow for some thinking time and
asking of questions. You will need
to model your thinking too. Do
not be afraid to admit your own
ignorance, as this will provide
your children with a solid example
of what it means to be a lifelong
learner. Be curious, ask your own
questions and together try to
answer questions using the
following techniques with examples
taken from David Mckee’s Elmer
We need to look in the book for
the answer. (What colour is the
We need to ask an expert.
Perhaps, a family member knows
or we need to turn to Google.
(Are elephants dangerous?)
We need to use our imagination or infer meaning from the book, using its clues to guide us. (Was the elephant happy?)
We need to talk about it. We have different answers to the question. I wonder if we can build an argument (not have an argument!) to answer one of our big questions. Perhaps we can try to give better reasons. By discussing these answers and weighing up their value, we enter into philosophical conversation.
(What does it mean to be happy?)
TIP 3. Start using philosophical language and questions to probe deeper thinking
By asking this simple question in a
non-judgemental tone, “What
makes you say that?” opens a
window into your child’s thinking.
(Ritchhart, 2013) Phrase concepts in unusual ways that help us to think differently. “If Peace was from Africa, what would she look like?”
Work out the big ideas together
and begin to name them as
concepts. “I think the book is about
… being fair, being honest,
friendship, telling the truth. What do
you think the big ideas, which are
difficult to pin down, are in the story?
Provide opportunities to make
distinctions between things. “What
makes something an animal and
not a human?”
Start looking for criteria in
concepts. “What must something
have for it to be real?”
Use coaching questions to make concepts accessible. For example:
• How do we know we have
• How do we decide if something is
• Should we always tell the truth?
• What does it mean to live happily
I wish you many happy hours of philosophising with your children and yes, you will discover that your children are thinking and searching for answers when asking all those questions.
Should you wish to find out more about our upcoming “Reading with Children to encourage Real Thinking” workshops visit www.thinkactive.org.za
Workshops will be developed to suit various age groups.
Elsworthy, E., 2017. Independent. [Online] Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/curious children-questions-parenting-mumdad-google-answersinquisitive-argos-toddlers-chad-valley-a8089821.html
Ritchhart, R., 2013. 9 Apps for Parents. [Online] Available at: http://www.pz.harvard.edu/sites/default/file/9%20Apps%20for%20Parents%20.pdf