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Using children’s literature to teach philosophy

Posted in Classroom, Comprehension, Literacy, Reading, and Speaking and Listening

All which the school can or need do for pupils, so far as their minds are concerned… to develop the ability to think. (John Dewey 1916)

I was recently asked by a colleague to recommend  picture books that could be used as a springboard for discussion on philosophy (this was probably due to the vast number of picture books I had on my shelf). Well, I of course agreed and  approached the task with gusto. I have shared the list with you below.

Philosophy is derived from the greek word philosophy; a ‘love of wisdom’. There are many varied definitions of philosophy. I find the definition by Marilyn Adam and Richard Bradley useful particularly in an educational context for students.

Philosophy is thinking really hard about the most important questions and trying to bring analytic clarity both to the questions and the answers.” ~ Marilyn Adams as cited  in Edmonds and Warburton (2010). 

or this definition by Richard Bradley

Philosophy is 99 per cent about critical reflection on anything you care to be interested in.” ~ Richard Bradley as cited  in Edmonds and Warburton (2010).

There are six main branches of philosophy.

Metaphysics/ Ontology: the nature of reality and the universe. What is real?
Epistemology: the study of knowledge and how it is acquired. What is knowledge? do all people have the same knowledge? what types of knowledge are important?
Logic: how to develop valid arguments. What is truth? What does truth mean? Can the truth be proved?
Ethics: the study of right and wrong and how people should live. What is right and wrong? How should we live?
Politics: the study of government, citizen rights and political obligations. Is the government just? is democracy fair?
Aesthetics: beauty, art and artistic perception. What is beauty? What makes something beautiful? What is art?

All of these branches can be used to frame questions surrounding childrens’ literature.

So, why would even think about teaching philosophy to kids? Watch the TED video below by  Dr. Sara Goering titled Philosophy for Kids: Sparking a Love of Learning. 

Other benefits include:
Cassidy ( 2014) studied 133 Scottish students aged from 5-18 who took part in a ten week philosophy program. Cassidy discovered that the students communication skills increased, their ability to see other people’s perspectives also increased. Students stated “that they were analysing problems more carefully, having patience to think things through, and trying to make sound decisions based on this analysis and deliberation” (p.49)

imageAfter all the work of thinking about, which picture books would be best. I have compiled a list, which I have shared with you below. These are some prominent authors whose stories could facilitate discussions on identity, friendship, love, perspective, ethics and other moral considerations.

But what would this look like in the classroom? Watch the You Tube video below, which shows how philosophy can be used in a primary school setting by Professor Phillip Cam

P4C offers some thoughts on what types of questions constitute a philosophical question

  • are open to examination, further questioning and enquiry;
  • can’t be answered by appealing only to scientific investigation or sense experience;
  • are questions about meaning, truth, value, knowledge and reality

After Reading the picturebook you frame your philosophical questions (The main focus needs to be thought about before the discussion).

One way to do this is through the Socratic method of questioning. This method of  questioning is  named for Socrates (ca. 470-399 B.C.), the early Greek philosopher/teacher. Socrates asserted that  teaching is based on the practice of disciplined, rigorously thoughtful dialogue.

The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Socratic Questioning (2006), by Richard Paul and Linda Elder identifies the types of questions which you can ask. These have been expanded to nine categories.

1. Questions of Clarification

2. Questions That Probe Purpose

3. Questions That Probe Assumptions

4. Questions That Probe Information, Reasons, Evidence, and Causes

5.Questions about Viewpoints or Perspectives

6.Questions That Probe Implications and Consequences

7.Questions about the Question

8.Questions That Probe Concepts

9.Questions That Probe Inferences and Interpretations

A PDF which lists questions under each of these headings can be found here

When you ask a philosophical question it is important that you remember: WAIT TIME IS VITAL. It is vital that students are given time to collect their thoughts and answer with depth and thought, rather than trying to get their answer out as quickly as possible.

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50 Books to explore philosophical thinking.

Fairy Tales: These all have strong philosophical undertones to explore. Take one step further and read some fractured fairytales which help with visualising from another perspective.

Aesops Fables

Henry and Amy: Stephen Michael King

The Man who loved boxes: Stephen Michael King

The Paper Bag Princess: Robert Munsch

Mutt Dog: Stephen Michael King

Patricia: Stephen Michael King

Alexander and the terrible, horrible no good day: Judith Voist

Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley: Aaron Blabey

Stanley Paste: Aaron Blabey

Sunday Chutney: Aaron Blabey

The Brothers Quibble: Aaron Blabey

Noah Dreary: Aaron Blabey

Pig the Pug: Aaron Blabey

Pig the Fibber: Aaron Blabey

Billy the Punk: Jessica Caroll

Edward the Emu: Rod Clement and Sheena Knowles

Edwina the Emu: Rod Clement and Sheena Knowles.

Stellaluna: Jannel Cannon

Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge: Mem Fox

Tough Boris: Mem Fox

John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat: Jenny Wagner

Fox: Margaret Wild

The Snail and the Whale: Julia Donaldson.

Last Tree in the City: Peter Carnavas

The Treasure Box: Freya Blackwood and Margaret Wild

The Runaway Hug: Freya Blackwood and Nick Bland

Luke’s Way of Looking: Nadia Wheatley and Matt Ottley

Mirror: Jennie Baker

The Giving Tree Shell Silverstein

Willy The Wimp: Anthony Browne

Piggy Book: Anthony Browne

Silly Billy: Anthony Browne

Zoo: Anthony Browne

Rose meets Mr Wintergarden: Bob Graham

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore: William Joyce

The big book of happy sadness: Colin Thompson

Hey Little Ant: Phillip Hoose

Herbert and Harry: Pamela Allen

How to heal a broken wing: Bob Graham

The Stone Lion: Margaret Wild

Special Kev: Chris McKimmie

This is not my hat Jon Klassen

Possum Magic: Mem fox

Older Readers: These are for 5/6 and above

Tower to the Sun: Colin Thompson

The Arrival: Shaun Tan

The Rules of Summer: Shaun Tan

The Lost thing: Shaun Tan

The Rabbits: John Marsden and Shaun Tan

The Little Refugee: Anh Doh

Jandamarra: Mark Greenwood and Terry Denton

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Useful Links

Tom Wartenberg’s site: Teaching Children philosophy, also has a list of books with discussion questions and prompts, which have been written by the students in Tom’s classes. A must.

Brain pickings offers short 60 sec videos on thought experiments. This would be a digital multimodal experience.


Cassidy, C., & Christie, D. (2014). Community of philosophical inquiry: citizenship in the classroom. ‘You need to think like you’ve never thinked before.’. Childhood and Philosophy, 10(19), 33-54

Edmonds, David & Warburton, Nigel (2010), Philosophy Bites NewYork: Oxford University Press

Haynes, J & Karen Murris (2012) Picturebooks, Pedagogy and philosophy, Routledge





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