Schoolchildren tackle philosophy

DALLAS ARTHURS: 'Meditation makes me feel happy, and also afterwards it makes me relaxed and calmful.'
DALLAS ARTHURS: 'Meditation makes me feel happy, and also afterwards it makes me relaxed and calmful.'

If reading, writing and maths are not enough for young minds, some Wellington 6-year-olds are also tackling life's great existential questions.

That's if they are not busy meditating, of course.

Philosophy and meditation are on the timetable at two Wellington schools, which have introduced the unorthodox subjects to engage children and help them to use their minds in different ways.

The eternal question of "Why?" is addressed during philosophy at Island Bay School, while at Miramar's Holy Cross School, meditation is seen as another way for children to feel calm and closer to God.

When visited by The Dominion Post, a classroom of Holy Cross children sat with their eyes shut tightly and legs crossed, breathing slowly.

"Meditation makes me feel happy, and also afterwards it makes me relaxed and calmful," said Dallas Arthurs, 10, after the five-minute session.

Others had been thinking about God, or about those less fortunate. "I feel sad for all the people because some people have no food, and I felt sad for the people who have no homes or anything," said Bailey Abbie, 9.

Principal Celeste Hastings said the school had introduced meditation so children could learn the importance of taking time out.

"In this day and age, when everybody can be really busy, we think teaching kids the skill of slowing down and just having a bit of quiet time is a life skill, really. It's asking them to stop and just be a little bit reflective."

Parent Francesca Ngan said it was a great initiative.

Her son Zachary Lorenz, 9, told her it made him feel calm. "It is really quite lovely."

It was hoped the whole 218-pupil school would eventually participate in the classes, taken by Sister Ema Konokono from Our Lady's Home of Compassion.

In Australia, programmes to teach Christian schoolchildren to meditate have been in place since 2006.

Philosophy is gaining traction at Island Bay School, where United States Fulbright scholar Thomas Wartenburg has been training teachers and teaching classes of 6-10 year olds.

The focus was on encouraging children to talk about the "why" questions that they were already asking about how the world worked, he said.

"Not all of the questions are philosophical but many are, and I think it's important to help kids to make sense of the world. It's never too young."

Island Bay School assistant principal Jane Hossack said philosophy fitted into the school's vision, and taught children to be skilled communicators. "We want them to retain that natural curiosity they come to school with, and we want them to have opinions and to get them to consider alternatives to those opinions. We want them to be able to articulate why they believe what they believe."

Reading, writing and Rousseau

What has a mind? How should we treat our friends? Should we always think for ourselves?

Such questions are the basis for a philosophical discussion at primary school, rather than the theories of great philosophers – unless children tap into the ideas of Plato themselves, Thomas Wartenburg says.

The pupils are read children's books, and then asked to discuss some of the ideas that come up. In a recent session, the class had talked about what it meant to have willpower, and how important it was, and whether you should use it if you have it.

"We are not trying to teach the kids anything about what anybody said, but getting them to engage in philosophical thinking. We're getting them to say what they think, and asking others whether they agree or disagree," he said.

Other questions suggested for discussion by Philosophy for Children New Zealand include: What would a fair society be like? Do we own our bodies? What does it mean to know something? What counts as a good reason for something?

P4C co-ordinator Vanya Kovach said studies of Australian schools that took up philosophy programmes showed it helped to lift results in all areas of the curriculum.

"It helps the children to explore their own ideas in a supportive environment."

The Dominion Post