Philosophy, The Giving Tree and Knuffle Bunny

20Jun10

from Amazon

Back in April I posted on a New York Times article about teaching philosophy to elementary school children. The article profiled Thomas Wartenberg, a philosophy prof. from Mount Holyoke College, who developed a primary primary grade curriculum in how to “do philosophy” with young kids. His website is here. I just finished his book, Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy Through Children’s Literature.

Big Ideas for Little Kids is a fascinating book. As the title suggests, this is a book for teachers. It addresses hands-on how-to work with kids to address many questions that are active in philosophy today, and does it from the perspective of a teacher. He discusses how and why to teach philosophy to young kids befor he starts into lesson plans, books and background in the major areas of philosophy (kept to a necessary minimum). There are sample lesson plans and suggested questions to throw out for discussion of each of the books he’s used to introduce children to arcane areas of philosophy.

cover image from Amazon.com

What Professor Wartenberg does in the how and why section of Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy Through Children’s Literature may not be new, but it is really, really good. He starts out by acknowledging that kids are curious, that they want to explore ideas. He talks about the nature of philosophy as a cooperative intellectual exploration. Then he puts that together into a teaching model and talks about the difference between teacher-centered learning and learner-centered teaching. He tries to help his readers–teachers–to see that they don’t have to be the font of all wisdom to an ignorant classroom of sponges, and that means they don’t have to lecture on a couple of millenia of philosophic thought. Wartenberg talks about philosophy as a process of dialogue, and teachers do know how to facilitate a classroom discussion. He talks about philosophy as a game in which the teacher and/or students read the story and then discuss it in the classroom according to “rules of philosophy.” His rules are good, and in each case the teacher can prompt the kids to go to the next.

State your position on an issue–that is, answer a question that has been asked–in a clear manner after taking time to think.

Figure out if you agree or disagree with what has been said.

Present a real example of the abstract issue being discussed. (e.g. Have you ever . . .? If I had to . . . I would . . .)

Present a counterexample to a claim that has been proposed.

Put forward a revised version of the claim in light of criticism.

Support your position with reasons.

He reminds us that there is no right answer to look for or extract from the kids, and he gives rules for the teacher, the first of which is to Listen.

Professer Wartenberg addresses Philosophy of the Mind using The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Philosophy of Language using Knuffle Bunny, by Mo Willems, and I mentioned in my previous post on this that he used Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree to teach Environmental Philosophy.

In using The Giving Tree, some of the discussion questions Wartenberg presents are excellent. They get to the nature of giving and gifts, the nature of love and what is happiness?. He suggests questions like, “Do you think the boy is selfish?” and “Why do you think the tree is not happy after giving the boy its trunk?” as well as tougher questions like, “Is the boy happy at the end of the story?;” “Is the tree happy?.”

Wartenberg suggests questions about love in The Giving Tree. He asks why the tree loves the boy at the beginning of the story and if the boy’s love for the tree was the same as the tree’s love for the boy, which gets to my issue with teaching philosophy with this book.

I said in my April post on the NYT article that “neither the children nor the philosopher discuss at all that on the relatively obvious metaphorical level the tree is a parent, giving unconditionally all that it has to (thoughtless, ungrateful) child/man.” (Ignore my typos, please). To my credit, I did go on to say that in asking questions about the surface of the story and listening for the answers, the discussion itself must take on a metaphoric level. I think I was right about that, and especially when the questions asked are questions about love.

I want to go further here, looking at Knuffle Bunny, but that’s for my next post.

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6 Responses to “Philosophy, The Giving Tree and Knuffle Bunny”

  1. My nine-year-old son and I read The Giving Tree tonight and he started crying. It’s probably the only time in my whole life that I’ve seen him cry and felt happy about it. I could tell he understood it. Thanks for this very interesting blog and some great ideas.

    • What a beautiful moment.
      I’ve always felt that the book was so much more for me as a parent than for my children, but maybe it really does come through to kids that what the tree was giving was everything that it was or could be, and the child never understood until the end of both of their lives.
      And, finally, that the book said something profound to your son speaks volumes about your relationship with him.

      • Thanks for what you said and for taking the time to say it. I think what makes The Giving Tree unusual is that it is very sophisticated conceptually but written with a language that is very accessible to young readers. Can you recommend other books written in this style?


  1. 1 Acquired: Big Ideas for Little Kids (2009) | Check It Out
  2. 2 Big Ideas for Little Kids | Check It Out
  3. 3 Big Ideas for Little Kids | Learning at the Library

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