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At Seattle Elementary, Philosopher Helps Kids Explore The 'Why' Questions

Florangela Davila
Jana Mohr Lone leads a philosophy class at John Muir Elementary

Students at Seattle's John Muir Elementary School are trying to answer life's big questions. Along with reading and math, the school's curriculum includes philosophy. 

Why philosophy? Kids start asking all sorts of "why" questions starting in preschool, says philosopher Jana Mohr Lone: "Why is the sky blue? Why are some things in color and some things aren’t? Can you be happy and sad at the same time?"

Mohr Lone says what sometimes happens when kids ask those questions is parents get flustered, not knowing quite how to answer them. That's why her Center for Philosophy for Children, based at the University of Washington, is helping create places for philosophical inquiry in Seattle schools. Recent grant money allowed Morh Lone to establish a philosopher-in-residence at John Muir Elementary year-round. 

Using Philosophically-Suggestive Books

Every week, Mohr Lone leads second-graders in discussions about ethics or morality or epistemology. The latter looks at what and what is not knowledge. Her instruction relies on student input.

"It’s not that we come in and say, 'OK, it’s time to learn about free will.' We read stories with the children that we think are philosophically suggestive," she said.

Examples of philosophically-suggestive books include "The Velveteen Rabbit," which explores what it means to be real, and "Horton Hears a Who," which raises questions about belief versus knowledge and doubt.

On a recent afternoon, she read the book "Emily's Art" to 26 students sitting crossed-legged on the floor. The book, which centers around an art contest, sparked a wide range of questions about how the judge decided to award the first prize. "Why did Emily win?" the students wanted to know, which then led to discussions about creativity, aesthetics and judgment.

Students Developing Skills 

So what do these discussions do for the students? Teacher Claire DiJulio says she has noticed both shy students and English language learners asking questions; her students are developing reasoning and conversation skills.

"And there’s no one telling them that there’s a right answer or a wrong answer, or a score to measure," she said. 

The Center for Philosophy for Children hosts workshops for teachers and leads classes at various Seattle schools at no charge. The center's website also offersa range of classroom activities that help engage children philosophically.

Florangela Davila is KNKX’s news director. A journalist in Seattle since 1992, she’s earned numerous individual and team honors in print, online and broadcast, most recently three regional Murrows for KNKX.