March 26, 2011

Philosophy series encourages discussion among kids

Local professor shares knowledge with children


PLATTSBURGH — Beth Dixon believes young children will benefit from learning philosophy.

"I make the case to teachers that philosophy is not just an add-on subject," the Plattsburgh State professor said. "It's a way to help them meet standards for other courses."

Through the college, Dixon heads an affiliate center of the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, a program that sponsors philosophy discussions with students in area schools.

But her passion for philosophy has prompted her to start a new event for elementary-school kids at the Plattsburgh Public Library.

During a recent session called "What Should a Good Friend Do? Puzzles and Problems about Friendship," Dixon led the children down different roads of inquiry after she and two philosophy students from the college read excerpts from two children's books.

Creating dialogue

The group also played a game in which the children labeled different people and objects as either "easy to be friends with, hard to be friends with or impossible to be friends with." They each took turns drawing cards from a backpack. Each card had a label on it, such as a computer or person with a disability, and the children placed the cards in one of the three categories.

Sam Schantz, an 11-year-old from Arthur P. Momot Elementary School, drew a card with "baby" written on it. He chose to put it between easy and hard because, as he explained, you can talk to a baby, but they will probably not understand you.

Several other children drew cards and explained their decisions, and most of the children were in agreement until Jamie Manning, a 9-year-old Keeseville Elementary School student, chose to put "a computer" between easy and hard.

"It's not a person," he said. "It can't ask you what you like."

But Schantz disagreed: "As long as you like it, you can be friends with it," he argued.

"But I like peanut butter and my jacket," said Emily Douglas, a 10-year-old Peru Central School student. "And I'm not friends with them."

These were exactly the types of responses Dixon was hoping to hear.

"Philosophy, as a form of inquiry and dialogue, ... has a central role in educating kids," Dixon said by phone recently. "And children are natural philosophers."

Posing questions

She and her assistants — Damian Roman, 29, who studies philosophy at the college, and Sam Schwimer, 21, who is doing field work for Dixon's class — helped lead the children in story time.

They read passages from "The Little Prince" and "Frog and Toad Are Friends."

After each reading, Dixon and her assistants posed questions to the students, such as "What does it mean to be tame?" and "How do you know when someone wants to be alone?"

At the end of the discussion, 12-year-old Benjamin Wells of Stafford Middle School told his peers he liked the event.

"It showed that it's possible to become friends with things other than people," he said.

The Philosophy for Children series continues at 3:30 p.m. March 29 and April 5 at the library.

To learn more, call Dixon at 562-2242 or 564-2836.

The sessions are free.