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Philosophical Play in the Early Years Setting

Communicating with children and interpreting their play and language requires skill and a sensitive approach. Therefore it gives me pleasure to have Sara Stanley, who supports children by using a philosophical approach, as my guest blogger

Sara is a registered level 1 SAPERE Trainer and National and International keynote speaker. She runs workshops, in service training and courses in Philosophy for Children (P4C) and enabling enquiry based classroom environments. She is also involved in long term projects working in Early Years settings in South African townships, working with Nali’Bali, PRAESA, the University of Cape Town and the DG Murray Trust.

Sara writes:

 “It could be said that children are at their most philosophical in their formative years. If you take Socrates’ provocation that “All I know is that I know nothing” then we see everything as new and puzzling. To a child the whole world is a new and strange place; a place where some things make perfect sense and others seem absurd.

It’s a world of inconsistency and challenges that they make sense of through play and experimentation, through trial and error both in role as a child and in the imaginary roles of heroes and villains.

Philosophy for children at this early stage of their lives is about developing awareness of their role in a variety of social and emotional contexts.

When a child wonders why their best friend refuses to let them play or why someone always spoils their game we rush to sort it out, “Play nicely, share your toys, be kind to one another” but do we really expect the reasons why these conflicts happen to be solved so easily?

The reasons why conflict occurs will occur throughout life, not just in the context of school readiness but in life readiness.

We owe it to our children to give them time to explore such questions as;

Why do people fight? Why are some people always in charge? Why can’t I play? What should I do when I am scared? And how do I know what is right or wrong?

Child and adult initiated play provides the vehicle to explore what it means to be truly human.

Philosophy for children is about sharing voices in the form of questions and thoughts. It is not about finding the answer but thinking of many possibilities and asking many more questions along the journey.

It is about allowing children to make connections with what they play and what they do, and the consequences and implications for a democratic classroom. A classroom based on trust, self-esteem, respect and a place where children are able to share and build on ideas.

Where does it start?

 Philosophy for children starts with observation of play and language – a practice which is second nature to Early Years practitioners. However these observations go a step further. They are not just observations of what the children are learning but also of what are they saying and thinking and the philosophical issues behind their play.

The stories we observe being played out may involve big bad wolves, naughty fairies, lonely dragons or dead superheroes.  There are many goodies and baddies whose boundaries are blurred by the child’s imagination and the power of fantasy play.

These stories are shared, re-enacted and embellished with elements of storytelling.

As adults in the setting we take on the role of facilitator. The facilitator brings the evidence of interesting philosophical play and fantasy to everyone’s attention in a community of enquiry.

This enquiry takes place in a circle (small group of children) where democratic expectations of speaking and listening behaviours are negotiated.

The facilitator asks questions or poses scenarios to push for deeper thinking. Their role is to play the non-judgemental and curious wonderer. “I wonder what might happen if….?” “I wonder why that happened?” And most importantly “I wonder what people think about that.”

In addition picture books and play activities using toys and artefacts are used to stimulate philosophical thinking.

The children are given time to share the first thoughts that arise from the stimulus and then allowed the time they need to experience the concepts and ideas that they identify.

This might involve taking responsibility for their own playdough blue kangaroo after sharing ‘Where Are you Blue Kangaroo?’ by Emma Chichester Clarke. Experiencing rules that Max might make up for his Wild Things (‘Where The Wild Things Are’, Maurice Sendak) creating their own versions of Little Red Riding Hood using puppets.

When the children have played they return to the enquiry circle to share and ask questions about their experiences with the facilitator developing the philosophical aspects.

The idea of using philosophical exploration in the EYFS is not yet another gimmick to implement. It is in fact just good practice. As Early Years practitioners we have to be aware of our own beliefs, our sense of self and our connection with society both in a personal and professional capacity. Why do we do what we do and how does this impact on the way we teach?

When we start this internal dialogue we learn to listen critically to ourselves. We can then begin to understand what we think and why and open doors to constant philosophical reflection. This process then enables us to listen, not just with our ears but with our brains, to others.


Why as adults do we often stop asking the questions that children ask? As we experience life it is often easier not to challenge assumptions or the opinions of others. Maybe we assume our answers are enough whether we agree with others or not?

I believe we owe it to our children to grow with the confidence to share their voices in a respectful and safe environment and to consider ways to solve problems with care and critical consideration through the medium they are experts in; fantasy play and the thoughtful story worlds they create.”

Sara has recently shared her unique approach to children’s philosophy with Reflections Nursery in Worthing. The Director Martin Pace, commented:

“At Reflections we draw inspiration from Reggio Emilia and listening to children is critical to our approach.  We find that the quality of listening with verbal children can often depend on the quality of the questions we ask. We chose to work with Sara in order to deepen our questioning. To ask questions which connected with the underlying themes of their play, rather than what we might see superficially.  

Reflections Nursery

Working with Sara was a pleasure – she was great fun and really helped us in two key areas.  Firstly in developing the team’s understanding and interpretation of children’s play and secondly, in better supporting children’s thinking, negotiation skills and self-expression.   Sara reminded us that children think about the big questions – what is reality, friendship, freedom, choice, responsibility, power? And she gave us the tools and the confidence to tackle these questions with children, to get them thinking about them and discussing them with their friends.”

Join Sara on #EYTalking on Tuesday 13th May, where she will share more ideas on philosophical play.

Further details about resources, case studies and ways to develop philosophical play in the EYFS can be found in Sara’s publications ‘Why Think?-Philosophical Play 3-11’, ‘Creating Enquiring Minds’ and ‘But Why?’

Information about training and Sara’s work in story play and thinking projects in South Africa and the UK can be found on her website:


Follow Sara on twitter: @philosophworld

Follow the conversation on:

Twitter: @IamLauraHenry

Facebook: @LauraHenryConsultancy

Instagram: @LauraHenryConsultancy




  • Penny Webb

    A really thoughtful and thought provoking blog. Those thinking and questioning skills are so vital to children and to adults, and I agree they need to be nurtured and developed in the children we work with and within ourselves.

    Thank you Sara for this blog.

    • Laura Henry

      Thanks for your lovely comments, Penny.

      • Sara stanley

        Thank you Penny. Together we can promote this common sense educational approach against rote learning and closed worksheets. A better use of power than our politicians seem to use…?

        • Penny Webb

          Agree Sara

          And as I have the ‘benefit?’ of meeting some Government and DfE people they have a lot to learn.

          Much of my time is spent challenging those who think they know more than me – and I could be (would prefer to be) spending that time with the children / promoting child led learning

  • Tracy Seed

    Great blog Laura and extremely important considerations for education. I absolutely believe that supporting children to think deeply and freely and to express themselves is so important. What is the philosophy of the educational approaches early years settings are implementing? What implications does this have for teaching, for the policies and the practices adopted?
    What implications does it have for the local community, for the wider community?

    Training focussed helping early years professionals and teachers to support the inner development of the child: evolving an ethical consciousness does not happen by simply imposing rules and telling children what is right and wrong . Care and compassion for ourselves and others are seeds that need to be fed and watered. My studies have for many years been about the philosophy of education focussing on various approaches to education, the underlying values and beliefs about development, learning, social change and transformation. This involves us understanding the roots of violence via nonviolence and also biocentric considerations and our interconnectedness with all ecological systems, humanitarian values, global citizenship. Supporting education for life. I love it that science and art comes together with the philosophical debates and concerns about humanity. During the early years we foster free thinking and speech and evolve ethical consciousness through inspiration, love and play exploring stories, creative and expressive arts and being together in relationships, solving problems, sharing ideas. Its important for staff to do this too. I love discussions around this subject.. My work in Hounslow next week will be a session with early years on physical development and expressive arts and will include story and helping teachers to understand more deeply that children learn through movement, emotion, communication and expression. We engage children’s imaginations use a variety of music that helps to awaken and restore rhythm and introduce melody. Movement for action and for rest. Engagement in adventure stories and explorations that encourage ideas, expression of emotion and connection with each other and the wider world. To understand our similarities and our differences, to solve problems and collaborate.

    I worked a few weeks ago as you know Laura with staff groups and management committee’s facilitating collaboration and helping them to review their philosophical approach to practice – what is it that drives their practice, way values and beliefs?

    I spend many months of the year working in Greece which of course is where the history of philosophy emerges.. this year for my own CPD I will be engaging in a programme concerned with these issues and more and leading retreats that many people from education and the caring professions attend. Providing a place of rest, reflection and contemplation before returning once again to make the fantastic contribution that they do to the lives of our children (the next generation)

    You and your readers may also be interested in my cousins face book page on this subject:https://www.facebook.com/pages/Story-Philosophy/233276366750772 and blog http://storyphilosophy.blogspot.co.uk

    I do hope this reads ok, I am in a bit of a rush and writing on the go.. Warmest wishes to you… Tracy

    • Laura Henry

      Thanks, Tracy! Good points.

      • Sara stanley

        You put it better than I could…one of my priorities in training practitioners is to help them understand that philosophy is not a lesson to be taught to the children but a way of thinking , playing and being WITH them . Recognition of our own beliefs, ideas and puzzlements as teachers are as important to share and model to teachers as other learning habits. Addressing what we have been taught to do with/to the children needs attention. Where do we stand ourselves on big concepts like power, friendship,ownership, knowledge and how do these, as you say, affect the way we teach and model citizenship. Hope you can join us on Tuesday evening for Laura’s EYTalking and thank you for this valuable input. Sara

  • Jennifer McQuillab

    An excellent article, thank you!

    As facilitators we have such a huge responsibility toward those in our care and the manner with which we engage with them is crucial to their ongoing development and sense of worth. If we don’t have a healthy sense of ‘being’ as an adult… How can we help a child with exuding their own independence if we battle with insecurities of independence ourselves, facilitate their enquiring minds if ours is restricted and restrictive, widen their horizons if ours are not open, enquiring, enthusiastic and non judgemental too? We need to constantly evaluate ourselves.. Our reasoning, our motives, our own life goals.. To ensure we are doing right by the children in our care.

    I would love you to visit us someday at Jenniflowers Sara – I believe my team would learn a lot.

  • sara

    thank you Jen .I would love to visit. Please do get in touch

  • Sara

    Thank you Jen, it would be a pleasure.

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