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Philosophy? It's childsplay

Kids think deeply, create and publish at camp run by Concordia student
May 8, 2013
By Louise Morgan

North American schools do a reasonable job of teaching kids to memorize facts -- yet many fall short when it comes to teaching critical thinking, a vital skill.

Natalie Fletcher
Natalie Fletcher shows a zine cover | Courtesy of Brila Youth Projects

That’s exactly what Natalie Fletcher, a PhD student in humanities at Concordia’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture, sees kids develop at the summer camp she runs through Brila, a youth charity she founded in 2008.

Brila Summer Creativity Camp is a philosophical and artistic day camp where kids create an online magazine, or zine, that helps them develop ethics and artistic skills -- while having fun.

Fletcher has run the intensive, five-day workshop series since 2008. For the first time the camp will be held at Concordia’s Loyola Campus this summer and has become part of her doctoral coursework.

The five-year, interdisciplinary program combines Fletcher’s varied interests. “It enables me to do philosophy as my major -- focusing on the ethical potential of creative thinking -- but also to work in education and aesthetics, specifically in digital arts,” says Fletcher.

Why teach phoilosophy to kids? “If you see philosophy, not as studying ancient primary texts, but as a way of engaging in your life and asking about what’s meaningful -- what’s worth doing, living or thinking -- then suddenly you realize that kids are natural philosophers,” says Fletcher.

“They’re always asking why. This method gives them a venue to talk about these subjects in a structured way, even though they don’t feel the structure since it’s very organic.”

Fletcher moderates philosophical dialogue among the children who hash out their own ideas.

“The children identify philosophical topics that interest them, based on some kind of stimulus,” says Fletcher. “We use artwork -- often the kids’ own -- and in observing it, they’ll come up with questions like ‘What does it mean to be a good person?’ or ‘How do I know I exist?’”

Snapshots of camp participants
Snapshots of camp participants | Courtesy of Brila Youth Projects

“Often we focus on ethical questions like ‘What does it mean to be violent?’ They think they know and then they start talking about it in a structured group discussion and realise their own view is very narrow. As a group they can come up with a definition that’s much broader,” she says.

The idea is based on the Philosophy for Children (P4C) model, an educational movement that aims to develop critical, creative and caring thinking in youngsters. Backed by UNESCO, P4C began in 1972 in the United States and has spread across the globe. Yet its prevalence is limited in Canada.

“Canada has to catch up with the rest of the world,” says Fletcher, who is a practitioner of the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children. “In addition to developing kids’ abilities to think, the Philosophy for Children model has been shown to reduce violence in schoolyards by teaching kids to talk things out and express themselves.”

After the philosophical discussions, guest artists help camp participants express their ideas through drawing, writing, spoken word, photography and multimedia art. All this then comes together into a 20-page online magazine published on the charity’s website.

This year Fletcher is working with Concordia artists to build a community in Montreal, which she hopes to develop into a Canadian P4C hub with her colleagues at the Association québecoise de philosophie pour enfants. She also works with the University of Ottawa and University of Alberta in Edmonton, where she will hold camps this summer.

Fletcher teaches humanities part-time at John Abbott College. She has worked as a writer and a designer for magazines and newspapers and facilitated youth-related projects for organizations such as the United Nations, Health Canada and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Fletcher holds a BA in philosophy from McGill University and an MA in ethics from the University of Ottawa.

The camp will be held from July 8 to 12 at Concordia’s Loyola Campus and is open to children aged nine to 12. Brila is actively seeking participants through its website. No arts background is required.

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