What Is Freedom? Teaching Kids Philosophy in a Pandemic

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“We don’t really need going to school,” Ella Wagar, a 10-year-old from Seattle, told her online peers during a recent Zoom session. “What we really do need are friends. If you don’t have friends, it sucks; you play alone, you eat alone.”

The children were exploring the difference between needs and wants in light of the pandemic in a weekly philosophical conversation guided by Jana Mohr Lone, the founder of the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children.

The group decided that playing sports and eating candy are wants, whereas exercise, food and friends are fundamental needs — especially now.

Like so many other children, Ella said that she badly missed getting together with her friends. Her grandmother died in March and the family was unable to visit her in the hospital or hold a memorial service.

“It’s been a really tough time for Ella,” her mother, Janna Wagar, said, “I’m just relieved that she’s had a chance to talk about those issues with others.”

Recently, Dr. Lone’s online dialogues with children have veered toward pandemic-related themes like the value of courage and resilience and how to be alone. It’s not a form of therapy, she says. It is an opportunity to think together about the big questions that matter to them in a way that empowers children to feel more confident about the value of their own ideas.

“We are not teaching children about philosophy,” Dr. Lone explained. “We’re teaching them to actually do philosophy themselves.”

While the young are natural-born philosophers, their impulse to question is often discouraged by adults who are uncomfortable talking about matters — like death and the meaning of life — that they have not yet resolved for themselves, or assume are unanswerable, according to Dr. Lone.

Eventually this youthful inquiry diminishes. Research shows that as they get older, kids ask questions less and less.

Which is a shame, Dr. Lone said, because deep questioning cultivates children’s curiosity about life. It also allows them to recognize that there are many different perspectives, not just their own, she added. And finally, it helps them analyze complex questions and think critically about new information.

Dr. Lone often uses children’s books to generate discussions. With older children, other forms of literature and film are appropriate.

Recently a similar children’s philosophy group in Turkey used a modern version of the Siren’s story in Homer’s Odyssey to explore what it means to be free.

ImageThe children’s book author Tugce Buyukugurlu runs online philosophy sessions in Istanbul.
The children’s book author Tugce Buyukugurlu runs online philosophy sessions in Istanbul.Credit…via Tugce Buyukugurlu

“One of the kids remembered what the oracle told them at the beginning: ‘Your freedom will come from not being free’” said Tugce Buyukugurlu, an Istanbul-based children’s book author who has also been conducting dialogues with 8- to 12-year-olds on Zoom during the Covid-19 crisis. “It was “an Aha! moment. They talked it over and came to the conclusion that following the current restrictions in lockdown is something they’re doing now to contribute to others’ and their own future well-being.”

Another potential upside of the lockdown comes, paradoxically, from the boredom that many are feeling, Ione Rawson, a student of Debi Talukdar, the philosopher-in-residence at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Seattle, said during a Zoom dialogue. “Boredom can help people be creative. New ideas are formed when we are bored and have time to think,” Ione, who is 10, told her peers.

New ways of thinking can also come from disruptions in our routine, like the current lockdown, which compel us to see things in a fresh way, said Jacqueline Woodson, a children’s book author who frequently incorporates philosophical themes in her books.

“So often our kids are looking down at screens and not up at the world,” Ms. Woodson observed. “The pandemic offers them a chance to look up and look out and see what’s going on, it’s a chance to talk about death, a chance to talk about what it means to live with intention and to be part of a greater good.”

“Kids are very deep thinkers,” she added. “They see everything, including our hypocrisies. There’s so many great conversations that can be had now.”


Jason Buckley, the founder of The Philosophy Man, an independent provider of philosophy education, with children in a classroom in England before the pandemic.Credit…Stephen Wells, Clarity Productions

Jason Buckley, the founder of The Philosophy Man, an independent provider of philosophy education, which charges a modest fee for parents whose children participate, is doing 18 hours of Zoom classes a week with groups of children and teens in Britain.

“It’s a little bit like everybody is in a philosophical retreat,” Mr. Buckley said. “People are thinking — a lot of the things that I was doing, I can’t do now, so which of those things really matter, what are my values, what do I want to want, what do I desire to desire?”

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 24, 2020

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

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      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

During a recent session, Mr. Buckley’s students reflected on whether individuals have a responsibility to protect the health of others. Some argued that young people should be restricted in their activities now to safeguard more vulnerable elders. Others were not so sure.

At the end of the session, they talked about what they’ve gained from their months of reasoning together — and sometimes disagreeing — about such matters.

“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.’”

Advocates say that this kind of open-ended questioning doesn’t just make young people more intellectually flexible and empowered, it can also help them to emotionally mature.

Arlene Yiadom-Daley is an administrator in the New York City Department of Education, and mother of Emma, a 6-year-old student of Ms. Cahill.

“Emma’s a headstrong kid,” Ms. Yiadom-Daley said. “She always has an opinion about everything. But now she’s more willing to listen. I definitely see a difference in her. Her work with Ms. Cahill fosters conversation. She doesn’t just say ‘no’ and have a tantrum.”