Thursday, May 15, 2014

Pre-Philosophy and Young Children: Reflections on Suzanne Axelsson and the Art of Listening

"The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them" - Ralph G Nichols

The skill of listening is perhaps one of the most valuable things you can teach and share with young children. After reflecting on the messages that Suzanne Axelsson shared during her PD session at Acorn School, I was able to make a lot of connections to my own practice and to professional research that I have read.

What I didn't know was how much we actually were exploring some pre-philosophy thinking in our classroom, as well as how much more we could be intentionally bringing these great practices into the classroom.

Suzanne Axelsson lives and works as a preschool teacher in Stockholm, Sweden. She has a great blog that lets readers into her deep thinking, reflections, and learning.

Please check out her blog for inspiration  ( and all of the slides that I may reference throughout this reflective post:

Ideas that resonated with me:

1) Philosophical Dialogues - with children of all ages:

When Suzanne shared about the philosophical dialogues that they use in their preschool, I made an instant connection to a practice that we have been exploring in FDK!

This year in our classroom we have been exploring the use of Knowledge Building Circles ( Our children led discussions reflecting and sharing their thinking about inquiries and investigations through rich questions presented. For example, "what does it mean to be fair?".

Suzanne and her teaching partners begin Philosophical Dialogues with even the youngest children in their programming. They begin very young promoting and exploring the concept of listening. Suzanne explained that with toddlers they will often begin by using an object to pass around with the children. The foundation of listening skills are built upon our interactions with each other - passing an object around the circle requires children to wait for their turn, for children to give and take....essentially the nonverbal skills of communication.

"Listening is not just about the words coming out", Suzanne explained, "it is about reading peers body language. Learning that listening is more than words". I thought these statements were particularly powerful in that listening is a complete whole body experience, but as educators we so often focus completely on the exchange of language. I had never reflected on how powerful preverbal communication is and how even in Kindergarten children could benefit from practicing how to listen with their whole body.

Then Suzanne said something that I have reflected on quite often with my own partner. She asked, "Does how we sit affect how we listen?". My partner and I have reflected often on how we sit as a larger group and have found through our own investigations that a circle seems to be the most inviting way that opens up all children to participate actively and equitably.

Where Suzanne challenged me to think even more deeply was when she talked about "creating magic" during these times. This year we have had some challenging behaviour and difficulty during our short Focused Learning ("carpet time"). We always keep this time very short, well connected to the children, and we strive for it to be developmentally appropriate. However, it continues to be a challenge on many days.

Suzanne challenged us to think carefully about what surrounds the children during philosophical dialogues (mirrors, doors, windows, noises...). She also talked about creating that magic by having the children sit on chairs in the circle. She shared a beautiful image of a circle of chairs with a light in the middle. The lights were off or low and the circle looked so inviting and magical. She talked about how we really want to strive for children to say "I want to be a part of this".

If we fixate on "how to sit", it does not enable the children to focus and go deeper into their dialogue. Thus, creating this space allows children to put all of their energy into thinking and sharing. Further, we had a great dialogue about how the philosophical dialogue time on the carpet should look different than other times so that the routine is distinct.

The philosophical questions come from the educators and children. They are connected to the children through their project work, inquiries, play, and interests.

I liked the way that she phrased her language when a question came up about how to keep children "on topic". She shared that she may say something like "I am interested in that but do you remember the question" or "It sounds like that is something you are interested in, maybe we can discuss that at our next time".

She shared that it is a PROCESS, much like anything we introduce and explore with children. To support the children, they record the names of those interested in responding to the question so that children do not have to worry about getting a turn to speak. After those children have had a chance to share, they may ask "I see you haven't said anything today, do you want to contribute now?".

What perhaps resonated with me the most was when she shared about READING BACK TO THE CHILDREN what they had said. Not for the sake of reading it back, but to ensure that you were able to capture their thinking accurately. The children have the right to change whatever has been written down or to clarify their thinking.

I will often read children documentation notes and pieces that I have written about them or their learning, but I reflected that it is not as often that I slow down enough to read the transcript of conversations back to children IN THE MOMENT. What a powerful way to ensure that we are capturing the conversations and understanding children's thinking.

Suzanne went on to share that "sitting in a circle and talking is not the preferred language for all children". Another profound statement that I connected mostly to that of the 100 Languages in the Reggio Philosophy. Although oral conversations are powerful and important, we always want to be mindful that all children communicate with different languages that suit them best.

2) The Other "Languages" of Philosophy

Active Philosophy: Allowing children to actively explore and investigate materials - documenting the experience and communication throughout the process. An example Suzanne shared was bringing inside wet and dry leaves to investigate and documenting the communication throughout the investigation.

Hands On Philosophy:
Encouraging the children to investigate hands on to explore philosophical questions. Using children's knowledge, interests, and understandings educators can create experiences to elicit this.

Another clear example that she shared was in Building. Children were challenged to use a photo to recreate a structure that they had previously made. They had to communicate with one another to determine where to put the blocks and why. They further extended this by giving the children a photo of a structure the teachers created which brought out dialogue between the children.

Philosophy in Art:
How can we create art experiences that bring forward philosophical dialogues and enhance communication with young children?

Suzanne shared that...
"Art is not always about representation, art can be a tool"
"Art can be about listening skills, math, or collaboration"

Then she asked..."How can children be creative if all they do is focus on themselves". It makes me reflect back to the fall when children entering school struggle to share materials, take turns, and listen to one another ("This is mine"). Creating pieces of collaborative art encourages many of the skills that educators hope the children develop throughout the year.

3) "Together Paintings" - an incredible, simple, brilliant example!

Using large sheets of brown paper in the art studio. Suzanne shared that she often starts with 2 colours which encourages children to talk and negotiate. As the process continues more colours may be added to encourage the children to think about how they can work together.

She shared a story about a little girl in her program that painted a beautiful princess on one of the Together Paintings. She was very upset when she noticed that someone had painted over it. To which the educators asked, "is it really gone? Just because we can't see something doesn't mean that it is not there". Documenting the process and stages of the painting allows children to see the different layers to their collaborative piece.

This blog post is already far too long and only includes a small portion of the presentation, but I really wanted to capture some of the key messages that resonated with myself personally after being inspired by Suzanne Axellson.

Personally, my next steps are to explore resources on teaching philosophy to young children. I also would like to try to restructure our Knowledge Building Circles next year to mirror some of what happens with Philosophical Dialogues (especially the seating and reading back dialogue to children). I want to get better at listening to the children to come up with the QUESTION for those circles as well. This is something I personally get stuck on sometimes, perhaps I over think it!

Ultimately, we have to continue to be reflective and think critically ourselves about all of our actions as educators. Suzanne Axelsson said it best, "We have to look at everything with fresh eyes. The children are creating the wheel everyday. We have to share that joy with them and let go to experience it with them as though it is the first time. It is magical, see the magic in the children."

To find out more about upcoming PD and inspiring sessions please visit Louise Jupp and Diane Kashin's blog - or the Acorn School site with Rosalba Bortolotti ( All of the PD I have experienced with these incredible individuals has been inspirational and worthwhile.

Suzanne Axelsson - TWITTER: @SuzanneAxelsson


  1. Brilliant! You have captured, so beautifully, a day that had many of our "brains exploding" with connections, 'aha' moments, excitement, joy and new learning. Suzanne talked about a time when she was told (I believe it was by a group of philosophers) that her bringing such concepts to children this young was far beyond their developmental capacity to understand. How amazed they were after acknowledging that they were wrong! I, like you, feel that at times I overthink things in search of the perfect question or provocation - when often, it is right there in front if me, if I just slow down and listen. How powerful it is when we take off OUR glasses and see things with "fresh eyes". Thanks so much for this post Tracy.
    I enjoyed meeting you and taking about our shared passions. No doubt, we'll meet again soon.

  2. Lada...thanks for your comment! I also really enjoyed connecting with you - you have a pure passion for learning and a light in your eyes that inspires those you connect with! I have already started to change my practice and incorporate inspiration from the session with Suzanne! Next week we bring back Together Paintings, but with a focus on capturing the complete process.