A Narrative History of the Philosophy for Children Movement

The advent of Philosophy for Children in the northeastern United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s was part of a broader intensity of interest in high school philosophy in that region, which was itself part of a tradition of philosophy in secondary education in many parts of the world, dating back hundreds of years. In the United States, a Centre for High School Philosophy was established in 1971. At the Centre’s first Summer Institute for high school teachers in 1973, Gareth Matthews, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, presented a paper entitled ‘Philosophy and Children’s Literature,’ in which he defended the claim that “what philosophers do (in rather disciplined and sustained ways) is much closer than is usually appreciated to what at least some children rather naturally do. The Centre’s first Progress Report also notes that, “early in the project Matthew Lipman of Montclair State College telephones the Project Director regarding his experimental work with philosophy for primary school aged children. He also sent a copy of his novel, Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery along with an accompanying teacher’s guide.”

Now widely regarded as the founder of the Philosophy for Children movement, Lipman had begun work on his first philosophical novel for children in 1968 and left a professorship at Columbia University in 1972 to work full-time on the new project at Montclair State College (now University). Lipman has written about several factors that prompted his invention of what he called ‘Philosophy for Children,’ but this story is less well-known:

I had been for years interested in children’s art and I thought here is a dimension of childhood power and creativity that is completely missed by people who think that children begin with intellectual weakness and then gradually mount up to higher and higher echelons of strength and understanding. (Lipman, 1991, Conference Report, Victorian Philosophy for Children Association (now VAPS), University of Melbourne)

The success of Lipman’s first classroom experiment with his novel in 1970-19071 convinced him “that philosophy can and should be part of the entire length of a child’s education. In a sense this is a kind of tautology, because it is abundantly clear that children hunger for meaning, and get turned off by education when it ceases to be meaningful to them.” In November, 1973 Lipman convened a Conference on Pre-college Philosophy at Montclair, attended by more than 250 educators from elementary and secondary schools, colleges, and universities. The report on this conference was the first publication of Philosophy for Children in an academic journal. It was also at this conference that Lipman met a new faculty member from Montclair’s College of Education, Ann Margaret Sharp, who had recently completed her doctoral dissertation on Nietzsche’s view of the teacher as liberator. The two become life-long collaborators and co-founded the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC) at Montclair in 1974.

Unlike others experimenting with ‘pre-college philosophy’ at the time, who saw schools as a place to do philosophy with young people, Lipman and Sharp saw doing philosophy as an ideal of the educational experience, even capable of transforming education more broadly. Toward that agenda they each wrote a number of philosophical novels for children and teenagers and collaborated with other colleagues on writing instructional manuals with conceptual explanations, exercises, and activities to accompany each novel. This curriculum was designed to accomplish a complex set of objectives, including: to model children recognising ethical, aesthetic, epistemological, and other philosophical dimensions of their experience, to expose students and teachers to diverse positions from the philosophical tradition, to model children engaged in philosophical dialogue with and without adults, and to illustrate philosophical inquiry making a different in children’s lived experienced.

Lipman and Sharp took the controversial position that teachers with no formal philosophy education could be prepared to engage their students in meaningful, rigorous philosophical inquiry. The first IAPC workshops for teachers were held in several public schools in Newark, New Jersey in 1975. The following year, workshops were held at Fordham, Rutgers, Harvard, and Yale to prepare professors of philosophy and education to work with teachers in their areas. At Montclair, Lipman and Sharp’s professional development programs evolved into undergraduate and graduate courses, and Masters and Doctoral degree programs, and today numerous universities around the world offer similar courses and programs in Philosophy for Children.

Lipman and Sharp’s work almost immediately attracted the attention of philosophers and educators around the world, hundreds of whom went to Montclair to study, train, teach, and conducte research. Many then established their own organisations in the US and some 60 other countries, to develop new curricula, research, and professional development programs, and university courses. At the same time, Philosophy for Children has never been a unified field. Since the early 1970s there have been numerous and divergent approaches. Notable among these are Per Jespersen’s approach that draws on the tradition of story-telling in Denmark; Catherine McCall’s approach (Scotland) to the community of philosophical inquiry that emphasises rigorous logical argumentation; Ekhart Martens’ ‘five finger model’ (Germany) of incorporating phenomenology, hermeneutics, analysis, dialectics, and speculation as phases of philosophical inquiry; the approach developed in the Netherlands by Karel van der Leeuw and Pieter Mostert, combining insights from Nelson, Lipman, and Chinese philosophy; Michel Tozzi’s ‘democratic-philosophical method’ (France) in which students are assigned specific functions in the context of parliamentary discussion; and Oscar Brennifer’s method of Socratic maieutics (France) that focuses on self-confrontation and the discipline of one’s own thought and speech. In addition, Gareth Matthews’ 1976 essay inaugurated the study of philosophy in children’s literature. The work opened the way for children’s literature and picturebooks to become an important curricular resource, alternative to the IAPC curriculum. Though diverse in materials, methods and aims, each of these approaches engages children or young people in some kind of philosophical dialogue. In the research literature these approaches are variously referred to by phrases such as ‘Philosophy for Children (P4C),’ ‘Philosophy with Children,’ and ‘Philosophy in Schools’ to distinguish them from text-based high school philosophy courses patterned on introductory college courses.

– Adapted from: Maughn Rollins Gregory, Joanna Haynes, Karin Murris, The Routledge International Handbook of Philosophy for Children, Routledge, 2016

Who we are

VAPS promotes critical and creative thinking among young people.

Find out more
What we offer

Supporting teachers in fostering the intellectual and social skills that enable students to think philosophically.

Find out more
Upcoming events

Our Philosophy in Public Spaces Events are run throughout each calendar school year.

View events
Become a member

Becoming a member grants access to the members’ resources and discounted access to events.

Sign up now