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Philosophy for Pre-Adolescent Children – Worth it or Waste of Time?

philosophy for kidsI read an article recently on why children – as in primary school children – should study philosophy. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the article again to dissect it further, so I did a little background digging instead…

Why Should Children Study Philosophy?

There is evidence that children who study philosophy:

  • are more likely to achieve better academic results
  • enjoy additional social benefits such as better self-esteem and the demonstration of empathy for others
  • have less bullying in the school and less behaviour-management issues

The evidence is canvassed under two categories: schooling and thinking skills; and schooling, socialisation and values. In both categories there is clear evidence that even short-term teaching of collaborative philosophical inquiry has marked positive effects on students. The paper concludes with suggestions for further research and a final claim that the presently-available research evidence is strong enough to warrant implementing collaborative philosophical inquiry as part of a long-term policy. – Benefits of Collaborative Philosophical Inquiry in Schools

Philosophy Improves English and Math Skills

There is also evidence that teaching primary school children philosophy improves English and maths skills:

The 3,159 primary school pupils from 48 schools who took part in the trial saw their maths and reading scores improve by an average of two months. But the benefits were even more pronounced for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, whose reading skills improved by four months, their maths results by three months and their writing ability by two months. – Durham University

In a study from Scotland by K. J. Topping and S. Trickey, 10-to-12-year-old students who participated in one hour of weekly philosophical discussion over 16 months:

  • improved their verbal, non-verbal and quantitative scores on the widely-respected Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT3, 2001) by an average of 7 points, compared to a control group whose scores remained steady; and
  • gains made during the initial 16-month study continued in the experimental group two years after the sessions had stopped, while the scores of the control group marginally declined.
  • analysis of video-recordings and student questionnaires administered seven months into the study revealed increased participation, better behavior, and self-reports of greater confidence, empathy, and control.

Philosophy Develops Thinking Skills

Philosophy also promotes critical thinking, deep analytic and reasoning skills (which we know is essential in this age of the Internet):

Children start asking philosophical questions early in life. Why should I be fair? What makes someone a friend? Why I am alive? Are stories real? Children are always wondering about the world in which we live and about the meaning of human life. Exposure to structured philosophy sessions can help them explore fundamental questions and to articulate and give reasons for their own views. Philosophy is the oldest and most effective discipline for learning how to think critically and to develop deep analytic and reasoning skills. – University of Washington

Are Children Capable of Studying Philosophy?

There is a general belief that children do not have the level of cognitive development required for philosophical thinking. This may, in part, be due to Jean Piaget’s well-known theory of cognitive development which suggests that children below 12 years are not capable of “thinking about thinking”. New research, however, suggests that Piaget may have seriously underestimated the cognitive ability of pre-adolescent children and there is quite an in-depth discussion about it on the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy if you want to know more.

Introducing Philosophy to Children

How can we introduce philosophy to children? Introducing philosophy to children may sound a lot more intimidating than it really is because there is so out there that we can talk about with our children. It can be about something from a book our children are reading, or even a movie we watch together. In fact, some of the biggest blockbuster movies offer plenty of fodder for discussion…

philosophy - avatarAvatar and Philosophy: Learning to See

  • What is empathy and can the Na’vi tsaheylu help us to achieve it?
  • How are mind, body, and personal identity related for an avatar-driver?
  • Does it take an avatar to understand and value the culture of the Na’vi?
  • What can we learn from the Na’vi about respecting the natural world?
  • Can religious beliefs help to foster a concern for the environment?

Jurassic Park and Philosophy: The Truth Is Terrifying

  • Human beings live and thrive by modifying nature, but when do the risks of changing nature outweigh the likely benefits?
  • If it’s true that “Life will find a way,” should we view any modified or newly reconstituted life as a hazard?
  • The new scientific information we could gain by bringing back T. Rex or other dinosaurs is immense, but should we choose to let sleeping dinosaurs lie?
  • And if we do bring them back by reconstituting them from ancient DNA, are they really what they were, or is something missing?
  • How do the different forces — human curiosity, profitability, and philanthropy — interact to determine what actually happens in such cases?
  • What moral standards should be applied to those who try to bring back lost worlds?

The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles

  • Is it always wrong to use a love potion?
  • Is death something to be feared . . . or “mastered”?
  • What can Severus Snape teach us about the possibility of redemption?
  • Is love the most powerful magic of all?

philosophy - hobbitThe Hobbit and Philosophy: For When You’ve Lost Your Dwarves, Your Wizard, and Your Way

  • Are adventures simply “nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things” that “make you late for dinner,” or are they exciting and potentially life-changing events?
  • What duties do friends have to one another?
  • Should mercy be extended even to those who deserve to die?
  • Was the Arkenstone really Bilbo’s to give?
  • How should Smaug’s treasure have been distributed?

The Hunger Games and Philosophy: A Critique of Pure Treason

  • Is it okay for Katniss to break the law to ensure her family’s survival?
  • Do ordinary moral rules apply in the Arena?
  • Can the world of The Hunger Games shine a light into the dark corners of our world?
  • Why do we often enjoy watching others suffer?
  • How can we distinguish between what’s Real and Not Real?

If you want a little more guidance, then these will help:

Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery

philosophyOne day Harry finds himself giving the wrong answer in his middle school science class and wonders: where did I go wrong? This question leads Harry and his classmates to think about the nature of thinking, inquiry and knowledge. With the help of their teacher, Harry and his classmates discover rules of formal and informal logic, relational logic and hypothetical thinking as tools to help them understand themselves and their world.

This novel explores the concepts of: education, mind, rights, religion, art, cause and effect, causes and reasons, and fallibilism. Adults with a background in philosophy will easily recognize the perennial philosophical issues raised in the story. However, no such background is necessary for young people or adults to enjoy this thought-provoking novel which offers several models for reasonable dialogue.

More Books for Teaching Children Philosophy:

Online Resources for Teaching Children Philosophy:

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

4 thoughts on “Philosophy for Pre-Adolescent Children – Worth it or Waste of Time?

  1. Hi,
    I think its worth mentionning the “Panchatantra” and the Mahabharata. Most Indian kids have grown up listening to stories from the Epics and whilst over the years grand-parents/parents tend to preach religion & moral science using these books as a base, if you read these for themselves there is nothing remotely religious about them. Preachy- maybe depending on the publication you choose.
    Dr.Shen-Li, if you haven’t already read these, may I recommend
    – the Mahabharata by RK Narayan
    – The Panchatantra by Arthur W Ryder
    – Chanakya Niti – I can’t remember the author’s name, will hunt around if you are inrerested.

    I am sure you will enjoy these!


    1. Thank you for the recommendation! In fact, I wholly encourage the boys to learn about other religions and cultures – how else are we to promote understanding and tolerance if we shut our ears and refuse to hear about that which is different?


  2. In 1993 I gave a talk on how I think electricity works in St. Petersburg Russia. When I got back to the states, the lady, who is now my wife, arranged for me to give the talk to two classes of high school students and to one class of fifth graders. The fifth graders seemed to grasp the content about as well as the high schoolers. At one point they expressed disapproval over my trying to tone things down to “their” level. ( I had replaced the phrase “sine waves” with “wigglys.”) The talk is available online at


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