Philosophy and critical thinking for younger kids
November 11, 2009 11:20 AM   Subscribe

What are some good ideas (web resources, books, suggestions, etc) for introducing a 6 to 7 year old child to elements of philosophy, paradoxes, and critical thinking?

This is probably too young of an age to actually study the topics directly, but there have to be thought exercises and stories out there that distill the essence of these things in an entertaining or captivating way. I've Googled a bit but found mostly dry lesson-plan type stuff for classes. I know Aesop's Fables is a classic allegory for kids but that focuses mostly on morals.
posted by crapmatic to Religion & Philosophy (24 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
This may be too oblique for your purposes, but I found a great introduction to those things in the now-public-domain, ostensibly-puzzle-focused game "Heaven and Earth", published in 1991. I played it as a child, and nearly 20 years later I am still discovering what it taught me.
posted by yomimono at 11:31 AM on November 11, 2009

I'm not sure if this is exactly what you're looking for, but when I was little I really loved flipping through Martin Gardner's Aha! It's not exactly intended for children, but it uses cartoons to display puzzles and paradoxes, and I seem to recall it (or at least parts of it) being written in a very accessible style.

Granted, I don't think I was actually handed it and told "Here, read this." It was on my parents' bookshelves and I picked it up myself. So I didn't feel compelled to understand all of it; I just enjoyed flipping through it and reading bits at a time. I'm also not sure how old I was, but 7 sounds about right to me.
posted by pluckemin at 11:36 AM on November 11, 2009

I know it's too early for this book, but Sophie's World blew my mind when I was 13, and then on subsequent readings at 16 and 20. It's a novel in which a young girl needs to learn about the history of philosophy in practice while solving a mystery.

Maybe reading it yourself might give you some fodder for explaining some complex ideas more simply to a 6-year-old?
posted by alight at 11:52 AM on November 11, 2009

For critical thinking, puzzle games are awesome. These can range from supermarket checkout logic/sudoku books to video games like Scribblenauts (Nintendo DS) or Fantastic Contraption (Flash). Any game that puts you at Point A, shows you the destination of Point B, and leaves you to your own devices to figure out how to get there, is an amazing tool for learning how to think. You'll need to find suitable puzzles for a child that age, but he or she will never outgrow the genre in general. I'm a grown adult and I still can't get enough of good puzzle games!

For paradoxes, the first thing that comes to mind is the scene in Back to the Future: Part II where Doc pulls out a chalkboard and explains to Marty the difference between 1985 and the alternate-timeline 1985A, and what they needed to do to return to familiarity. I think when I saw that as a child it was the first time this sort of thinking "clicked" with me. It really got my little brain going. 6 or 7 may still be too young for the trilogy though. I'll always contend that anything time-travel related is the perfect seed for a fertile imagination.

I don't know what to suggest for philosophy, apart from starting conversations that challenge common assumptions. Ask age-appropriate questions about the nature of reality. Be sure to follow them up with "Are you sure?" and "How do you know?" and "But what if the reason is actually X?" And always end with the disclaimer "I don't know either, but it sure is fun to think about this stuff, isn't it?"
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 12:07 PM on November 11, 2009

This may give you some ideas.

Personally I intend Nietzsche as bedtime reading at the earliest possible opportunity.

"... and do you know what happened next little one? 'The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances. 'Where has God gone?' he cried. 'I shall tell you. We have killed him, you and I. We are all his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?

... sweet dreams dear."
posted by leibniz at 12:09 PM on November 11, 2009 [3 favorites]

Jokes. Most kids that age are just figuring them out. It's fun to talk about what makes a joke funny and make up others that are along the same line, with wordplay, incongruous situations, etc.

Why did the elephant paint its toenails red? So it could hide in the strawberry patch.

Why did silly Billy throw his alarm clock out the window? So he could see time fly.

Get a big book of knock-knock jokes, tell them to each other, talk about why one makes you laugh like crazy and another one makes you groan. At least you'll have fun!
posted by Sublimity at 12:19 PM on November 11, 2009

I've gotten feedback from teacher's etc that my seven year old has an unusual awareness of multiple perspectives at once and of moral complexity. I chalk it up almost totally to the emphasis on literature in our family. I've been reading to her almost every night for her whole life. We listen to books on tape on almost every car ride. And now she reads to herself voraciously. Although she reads a certain amount of Rainbow Fairy crap, and a lot of kids literature that is just light and fun, I have always folded in complex literature that, I believe, stimulates her critical reasoning skills. There are kid's book authors who do this well: William Steig is one of my favorites for this reason, and we also occasionally read adult books aloud. For example, I just read her The Old Man and the Sea, which, believe it or not, works fine for her age level - and she loved it!

Also, when we read books (or see movies) where I have concerns about the message - I engage in conversation with her about it. For example, I explained to her why some of the racial imagery in Pippi Longstocking bothered me. I tried to say it in a way that wouldn't make her feel bad, but would simply encourage her to question what she was hearing. Or I'll just ask her questions about her perspectives: "why do you think that character decided to do that?" stuff like that.

[I hope this does't come off as bragging, there are definitely areas where my kid is behind her peers too - this is just an area she's developed more quickly]
posted by serazin at 12:30 PM on November 11, 2009

teachers - not teacher's. Sorry.
posted by serazin at 12:31 PM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Reading The Phantom Tollbooth together might be a fun way to start talking about abstract ideas. Plus, it's the kind of book that's fun to read at multiple ages, so if your 7-year-old doesn't get it or love it right away, you can shelve it until s/he's a little older.
posted by Meg_Murry at 12:53 PM on November 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes. Warning that they have some adult jokes, but covers some Philosophy that you may be able to teach kids.
posted by brent at 12:55 PM on November 11, 2009

Another great way to develop a kid's critical thinking skills are just to model them. My parents didn't ever sit me down and tell me, "Now we're going to learn critical thinking!". But they were (and are) cranky, cynical people (I say that in the best and most loving way possible) and would do things like talk back to people on TV -- talking heads, commercials, whatever -- or talk to me about what we'd just seen. E.g., "They think we're going to buy that face cream because a famous person told us to. What does [stupid pop star X] know about dermatology?"
When my sister or I said something that didn't seem to bear up under critical examination, they'd call it out. One has to be careful with that -- my mom was fairly gentle about it, especially when we were kids, but my dad could easily forget he was talking to an 8 year old and start expecting us to be as rational and critical as a well-educated adult. That was tough to deal with sometimes. But there was a lot of, "What makes you say that?" -- and they genuinely wanted to know. One of the things I value most is that they were always willing to consider our thoughts and be persuaded, even when we were really little, if we had logic and reason on our side.
Lest you get the wrong idea, they were more than willing to bust out the "Because I said so" defense when necessary, but for non-essentials they were wonderfully willing to explain their logic or consider ours, and admit when we had a better idea or knew something they didn't. Having willing and skilled opponents definitely sharpened my wits and logic more than they would have been if I'd been left to watch TV by myself or only have disagreements with kids my own age.
posted by katemonster at 1:23 PM on November 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass can be read on many, many levels. Very young children can approach them as fantastic adventure stories, but the more you read them, the more logic puzzles unfold.

Kudos to the OP for being so generous and involved with this child's upbringing.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 1:35 PM on November 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

Phantom Tollbooth and Alice in Wonderland are explicitly philosophical.
The Narnia books are about good and evil, especially from a Christian perspective, but enjoyable for kids who aren't Christian.
Duck! Rabbit! is a picture book that riffs on a familiar philosophical joke about an ambiguous figure (is it a duck or a rabbit?).
Well-written kids' mystery books like Encyclopedia Brown are great for induction, because you're supposed to be listening for clues as to what's going on, putting the pieces together yourself.

For logic, strategic board games are great. Tic-tac-toe is the most basic version of this kind of decisionmaking - you can walk her through why certain moves make sense and certain moves don't. Checkers. Othello, etc -- whatever game you already know, where the game is determined by the players' decisions rather than lucky dice rolls. Working through the implications of a certain move is a skill you need for philosophy - if I accept premise x, does conclusion y follow?
Some games like Mastermind and Clue are explicitly about deduction, trying to use clues to find the remaining answers. Set and Quarto are great in a similar way.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:56 PM on November 11, 2009

I would think that just exposing a child of that age to some basic math (particularly money math), English sentence structure and fun science would do a world of good. As others have mentioned, it's about building the foundation at this point.

I come from a fundamentalist Christian family that believes the world popped out of nowhere when God told it to. I do not believe this. There are a lot of reasons why I have ended up more critical than my family--many of which didn't occur until I was a teenager--but I think some of what enabled me to think more critically was foundational science as a kid that they, quite ironically, exposed me to. It ran in conjunction to a lot of preaching, but in the end tangible, logical thoughts won. Doing hands-on experiments, learning about dinosaurs and history, seeing real-world things that work under certain, well-defined and understood circumstances all promoted critical thinking.

I also want to second what serazin said. My mother was reading me "young adult" books by the time I was four and five. I do think that this resulted in better critical thinking; it also resulted in my reading biographies at age eight and saying "salutations" on my first day of kindergarten (thanks, E.B. White), so do keep in mind that you may be making a word/science/number nerd of your child with this. Nothing wrong with that, though.

If you have a Wii, some of the brain training games would probably be a great option, too. Most kids pick up games of all sorts very easily, and those would be a nice way to introduce brain teasers, so would a lot of the puzzle and mystery games on the Nintendo DS.

Do you have any idea what kind of learning style your child seems to gravitate toward? This would be another good angle to start from, as you'd know what would work best.
posted by metalheart at 2:21 PM on November 11, 2009

Seconding Gardner's Aha!. Like pluckemin, I picked it off the shelf at around age 6 or 7 and spent a lot of time reading the cartoons; I mostly ignored the body text, but I still got a lot out of it. It's got lots of easy-to-understand presentations of logic problems, paradoxes, and the like (there's a whole chapter about the Hotel Infinity, for example).

The language is simple and the tone is very light: much more "hey isn't this neat?" than "we will now use a proof by contrapositive to show that blah blah blah ... " In fact, as far as I recall he leaves formalized notation and terminology out of it completely. Also, each problem (example? story? parable?) is short, usually about 10 cartoon panels, making it well suited for the typical 7-year-old's attention span.
posted by Commander Rachek at 2:22 PM on November 11, 2009

How about those '5 minute mystery' yes/no question games... I use those with my sciences classes at school to kill a bit of time and get them thinking critically and laterally.
posted by Sustainable Chiles at 4:06 PM on November 11, 2009

seconding Alice in wonderland - the Annotated Alice (again, by Martin Gardner) explains the maths and phil trickery and references Carrol uses in the books as well as as its victorian context alongside the story. An excellent springboard for that kind of thing.
posted by Sparx at 5:46 PM on November 11, 2009

In a few years, try Metaphysical Stories for Children, but really, wait a few years--my mother read one story in the collection, about a unicorn who finds out he doesn't exist, to me when I was that age and it completely freaked me out.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:33 PM on November 11, 2009

Oh, and seconding Alice. I have a paper that was in the Carrollian (not available online) about why Looking Glass is a great text to use to teach kids basic philosophic principles; feel free to MeMail me if you want to take a look.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:35 PM on November 11, 2009

Dialectics for Kids.
posted by serazin at 7:10 PM on November 11, 2009

Q is for Question is a picture book designed for talking about philosophy with young kids.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:32 PM on November 18, 2009

Q is for Question also has a website with sample pages, more informative than the Amazon link above.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:39 PM on November 18, 2009

Big Ideas for Little Kids by Thomas Wartenberg, who's a professor at Mount Holyoke College who has done research on teaching philosophy to kids for years. This is a book for adults about how to teach philosophy to kids using children's books as a starting point.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:28 PM on November 24, 2009

Here it is over two months later, but for future readers of this thread....

A must-read book about teaching philosophy to kids is Little Big Minds by Marietta McCarty.

I can't recommend it highly enough.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 6:23 PM on January 17, 2010

« Older If a bill passes, why does the time of passage...   |   Custom view for flagged emails in Entourage? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.