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Kids answer tough questions at library's Philosophy for Children series

Adults often seem surprised when children offer bits of insight that seem wise beyond their years. But as one local philosophy professor knows, kids are plenty capable of critical thinking, if only the adults around know how to foster it.

That's why Senem Saner, a Cal State Bakersfield professor, started the "Philosophy for Children" series at the Kern County Library, which held its second event of the season on Saturday at Beale Memorial Library. There, six kids took a deep dive into "Frog and Toad Together" and discussed the topic of "What is bravery, really?"

The series "will give an opportunity to kids to think about the questions they naturally ask but don't have the chance to talk about," Saner said — questions like "Why should I not lie?" and "Why should I go to school?"

Most of the kids at Saturday's session might not have known what "philosophy" was by name but they understood when Saner described it as talking about "questions that aren't easily answered." It was easy for the kids to say who their best friends are but the question of what makes a good friend was a little bit more of a thinker for them.

Moving on to the topic of the day, Saner asked the kids about a time they felt brave. Andi Kruszka, 8, shared about the time she was scared at a Halloween haunted house but went in anyway. Standing up to bullies, she said, is also brave.

As Saner read a short story from "Frog and Toad Together," the 1972 book by Arnold Lobel, the kids saw how the title duo want to be brave like the characters in a book they read and decide to go on an adventure up a mountain, where they encounter — and flee from — a hungry snake and a hawk. Were Frog and Toad brave for their adventures, or were they cowardly for running from them? The children's answers were mixed but they all agreed that to be brave, one must face some kind of challenge.

"What makes a person brave is knowing the circumstances, the risks, and going ahead anyway," said Luca Gutcher, 10.

Later, another thought experiment had the children discuss who was the bravest in three scenarios involving spiders: a child who is afraid of the spider and runs away, a child who is afraid of the spider but finds a way to capture and release the spider outside or a spider scientist who lets the six-legged creatures crawl all over her? The kids quickly agreed the first person wasn't the bravest, but deciding between the second and third needed some serious discussion.

"I think it's not the scientist," Luca said. "The scientist probably knew it was not venomous because if the scientist knew the spider was venomous, she probably wouldn't be willing to let it walk on her. I'm going with the child, who was younger and didn't know a lot about spiders and was scared but had the courage to take it outside."

Other kids disagreed, saying the scientist was braver because it takes guts to let spiders crawl on you. That well-reasoned but polite discussion thrilled Saner, she said after the children had gone. It was an example of what the series is about: discussing responses to tough questions that don't necessarily have right or wrong answers and delving into why one has the ideas that they do.

"We love those disagreements, having different intuitions and figuring out why (they) disagree," Saner said, calling it a "community of inquiry." "They are practicing listening to each other and listening to each other to hear each other's positions and respectfully say 'I agree' or 'I disagree.'" 

Saner got the idea for Philosophy for Children from the book "Big Ideas for Little Kids," by Thomas Wartenberg, which she and some of her Cal State students were reading last year. Some of the students wanted to hold philosophy sessions at local elementary schools, and the program has now expanded to a second semester at the library.

"This is a big resource because kids now are very much pushed toward math and reading, and teachers don't have enough time for other activities," Saner said. 

The benefits of a program like Philosophy for Children are twofold, Saner said: first, the obvious educational boost they will get from learning to think critically, and second, the confidence that tends to go along with that. 

Kamala Boeck, Andi's mother, said she wanted to take her daughter to the philosophy session because the young girl is already "really quite thoughtful," she said, and she wants to encourage that.

"This was a great opportunity for us to really acknowledge that kids can think about things and discern them," Boeck said. "I think a lot of people dismiss children's intelligence."

Kelly Ardis can be reached at 661-395-7660. Follow her on Twitter at @TBCKellyArdis.

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