Debates about the meaning of life and the nature of art are not conversation topics we would typically expect of children. But research at the intersection of philosophy and education shows what kids are capable of.
While many would consider philosophical thinking to be too complex for children, research shows that engagement on these topics can have a positive effect on learning, cognition, and psychological well-being. Some of the benefits seen are the widening of intellectual horizons, reductions in shyness and behavioural issues, and increases in confidence and a sense of belonging.
Rather than teaching complex theories and articulating technical jargon, philosophy programs for children are generally focused on encouraging youth to develop a positive sense of agency when it comes to thinking about who they are, how they might want to interact with others, and the kind of life they want to have. This is done by engaging children in a practical, open, and collaborative process of inquiry, with the end goal being exploration, rather than obtaining ‘correct’ conclusions.
Research and practice of philosophical programs for children was pioneered by Michael Lipman in the 1970s. Inspired by the popularity and benefits documented in Lipman’s practice, several formats have evolved since.
The Trauma and Mental Health Report reached out to Dr. Claire Cassidy, a Professor of Education and researcher at the University of Strathclyde Glasgow with over 30 years of experience in the field. In one program named Community of Philosophical Inquiry Sessions (COPI), Cassidy has observed and documented promising outcomes for well-being, mental health and cognition.
As the name suggests, the COPI format focuses on creating a community of open inquiry and can be practiced with individuals of all ages and abilities. A trained practitioner with a background in academic philosophy hosts the discussion, which generally lasts an hour.
When asked about some of the effects of COPI observed in children, Cassidy notes decreases in problematic behaviour, increases in confidence and sense of belonging. She attributes much of the positive benefit of COPI to the open and free structure of the discussion itself, which ensures that children feel heard and listened to when speaking about important topics.
When facilitating COPI discussions in groups of children with behavioural issues and autism, Cassidy found that these conversations helped youth better regulate their emotions and behaviour. Having a space in classroom conversations and knowing their responses are valued, without being assessed as correct or incorrect, the children were more likely to wait their turn to speak – even though they eagerly wanted to share their thoughts.
Dr. Cassidy recounts a touching moment while working with teenagers in a secure accommodation facility. After finishing a set of COPI sessions, a teenage boy expressed:
“People don’t expect kids like us to be able to think like this…even I didn’t know I was capable of these kinds of conversations.”
-Emma Puric, Contributing Writer