Knuffle Bunny and the Philosophy of Language


Back to Thomas Wartenberg’s Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy Through Children’s Literature.

One of the books that Wartenberg examines is Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny. I love Wartenberg’s book, and both my philosopher-partner and my teacher-daughter are in line to read it now that I’ve finished. He respects the intelligence of children (and teachers), and his method is to ask interesting questions and listen respectfully to the answers, then to moderate as the children themselves go on to explore the meaning of what they’ve read. I know at least four kids who would react to that last sentence with a smile and a groan–we did that for years with our kids, though our focus was a bit different. I’m going to use Knuffle-Bunny to explore the difference a bit.

Wartenberg lists his discussion questions under topics, with a little elucidation as to the story elements one can use to investigate the topic. For instance, “The Nature of Communication  Before Trixie could even speak words, she went on an errand with her daddy to the Laundromat.” Questions that explore the nature of communication include:

“How did Trixie communicate with her father before she could use words?” and “Could Trixie have done anything other than cry to get her father to understand her bunny was missing?’

Under the topic “Meaning  When Trixie finally speaks, she says, “Knuffle Bunny!”.” And Wartenberg asks, “There are a lot of words you haven’t looked up in a dictionary, so how do you know what they mean?” and “Does a blind person’s idea of red differ from yours? Does she know what it means?”

I’ve talked before about what I feel is important about Knuffle Bunny, and while questions like these are illustrative of philosophical ideas and issues, they aren’t the ones I would ask.

My questions, the ones I explored a bit in my post on Mo Willems and D. W. Winnicott, are:

Why was Knuffle Bunny so important to Trixie that she brought the animal with her, that she panicked when it was left behind and that after it was found, her first words were Knuffle Bunny? That is, to use Professor Wartenberg’s topic, what is the Meaning of Knuffle Bunny to Trixie? Further, why did mommy and daddy both go running back to the Laundromat to find Knuffle Bunny? Why was it important to them, as well?

Under the topic The Nature of Communication I would ask why it was so hard for Trixie to communicate her loss to her father when her mother picked up on the missing stuffed animal in an instant (and from the illustration, it appears she understood from the look on Trixie’s face)?

I don’t do this exercise in any way to diminish the importance of teaching philosophical methods to children or the magnitude of Professor Wartenberg’s accomplishment. This is a wonderful book and I do recommend it to teachers and philosophers. But the questions I find important are not the same ones as Professor Wartenberg finds important, and the books he uses here raise both sets.


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