Members of the Philosophy for Children program

Do you ever find yourself wondering about such big questions as What is happiness? Can computers think? Am I the same person I was five years ago?

If so, you’d be the ideal student for the Philosophy with Children program created and directed by Riley Nichols ’21 last fall. Twelve Hamilton students joined Nichols in developing and delivering weekly lessons exploring age-appropriate topics in philosophy with groups of Clinton elementary and middle school students. 

Nichols, who hopes to become an elementary school teacher, initially proposed the program to her advisor Marianne Janack, the John Stewart Kennedy Chair of Philosophy, as an independent study called Pre-College Philosophy. She recruited the other students, whose majors range from history to neuroscience to philosophy, to join her as teachers and co-creators of the lessons. 

Hamilton students chose topics that interested them, ranging from the philosophy of music to the philosophy of language and friendship. Nichols felt it was important that each student select their own subject areas to ensure that they were “intrinsically motivated.” They then worked in teams of two to design and deliver the virtual lessons to three groups of students: K-2nd graders, 3-5th graders, and middle schoolers. Lesson titles included Does Grammar Matter?, The Truth About Lying, Sports and Permanence, What Slugs Wonder About, and What is Funny?

Riley Nichols '21 with a
Riley Nichols ’21 with a “robot,” a prop for a Philosophy of Personhood lesson

“[The Hamilton students] did an excellent job teaching the lessons. They were so patient with the children, and they developed lessons that were appropriate to the age and grade levels,” said Assistant Professor of Philosophy Justin Clark, father of a 5-year-old participant. Clark sat in on the lessons and said both his daughter and her best friend loved them.

“One of the many lessons that captured the attention of the children, for several days actually, was on the topic of ‘perspectives,’” Clark added. “After discussing various drawings, like the one that can be seen either as a rabbit or as a duck, for instance, the kids started bringing the concept of perspectives into their ordinary conversations!”

Reading about the Philosophy for Children movement that began some time ago at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Mt. Holyoke was how Nichols first became interested in the project. Her email correspondence with Thomas Wartenberg, author of “Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy Through Children’s Literature” and a leader in the philosophy for children movement, further inspired her.

“I’ve always known I wanted to work with young children,” said Nichols, who was inspired from an early age by her own kindergarten teacher who made learning experiential. “They ask you all of these questions all the time – you can have great conversations with them.”

Janack noted that Nichols’ endeavor differed from other philosophy for children efforts because it was the first time such a program had been presented virtually, was developed and delivered by students, and offered free of charge. Nichols hopes the program will continue in subsequent semesters.

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