Philosophical quests with Brila and Natalie Fletcher

Updated: Jul 14, 2021

I’m always looking for inspiration for myself as well as for others, who are interested in philosophical enquiry with children and in creativity. I was hoping that you could share some projects that you’ve been working on. You are the founder of Brila. What mission lies behind it?

Happily! Brila is an educational charity based here in Montreal, Canada, and our mission is to inspire youth through philosophical inquiry and creative experimentation in ways that promote critical thinking, shape social responsibility and enhance self-efficacy.

children P4C Philosophy play with Brila Canada
Children engage in conceptual play during philosophical dialogues as part of Brila’s empirical studies on Philocreation

We’re actually in a big transition period right now as we enter our fifteenth year—we’ll be redoing our website, launching a new online training platform, publishing our games and pedagogical materials, and starting a whole bunch of initiatives. But essentially, what we’ve done over the years is build on the classic Philosophy for Children (P4C) model developed by Matthew Lipman and Ann Margaret Sharp, and slowly developed an approach we call Philocreation. For myself, I think I can say I’m a P4C purist in many ways: all of Brila’s team has had the great privilege of being trained at the original Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC), and I am a huge proponent of its Community of Philosophical Inquiry (CPI) model. I’ve used it for years across age groups, from preschool through college, whether with little kids or in my university courses, and even with the elderly.

Yet since we work in so many different contexts, in order to respond to the needs of our diverse audiences, over time we’ve been inspired to align the classic CPI spirit with different forms of imaginative engagement—so the “pure vanilla” version, as our friends at the IAPC call it, with some Brila sprinkles added! On any given day, we can work with the children of professionals and also with new immigrant or refugee youth, who sometimes have their first experience of Canada in one of our philosophy programs. We also work with at-risk youth, Indigenous youth, neurodiverse youth, queer youth—not just in schools but also through extra-curricular programs, and with local or international community partners, ranging from science centres to art galleries to youth theatres. And we always work in at least French and English, if not also in other languages. So there’s a huge variety!

Children workshop philosophy through movement P4C Canada
One of Brila’s philocreation workshops at Montreal art gallery exhibition that encourages children to think through movement.

Given this diversity, what we’ve found is that the classic CPI approach—as much as we love it—doesn’t always translate well in some specific situations. For instance, how can we do philosophy in a theatre with 300 kids and their parents who have just seen a very provocative play? Or how can we get kids thinking about the ethical issues behind tech innovations during a hands-on project at a science centre? This range of contexts compelled us to develop an approach that would respect the integrity of the original CPI model—especially its rigour in terms of facilitation and philosophical principles—while being flexible enough to adapt to any context, whether a one-time workshop at a comics festival or an ongoing weekly program in a school over multiple years. So Philocreation is a fusion of philosophical inquiry and creative experimentation—in no way does it claim to reinvent the P4C wheel but rather to complement existing methods through specifically designed dialogue types (like thought experiments and ethical problem-solving inquiries) and collaborative projects that can mould well to the diversity of contexts in which we work.

During the pandemic, a lot of activities involving those kinds of projects would have been postponed or cancelled. I’ve read in The New York Times that you are also the initiator of PhiloQuests. Is it inspired by the Philocreation approach?

Yes, definitely! PhiloQuests is an online platform of over 100 free activities for youth of all ages, inspired by the concepts that have been most alive for them during the pandemic, from solitude, worry and boredom to hope and resilience. The initiative is hugely inspired by Philocreation since it invites children and teenagers to go on adventures in their minds by exploring concepts that matter to them through games, creative missions and family discussions—all feasible even during lockdown.

A prominent dimension of Philocreation is conceptual play, and one way we do this is by imagining concepts as if they were living, breathing creatures. So even very small children can be immersed in a world of concepts and start to understand their significance through the ways they intuitively personify them based on their own experiences. Concepts can seem very abstract and even alienating, but by transforming them into characters with thoughts, feelings and motivations, we can get to know them better, reveal our assumptions about them and build toward more robust conceptions.

‘Keeping the kook alive’ is Brila’s way of translating the spirit of self-correction to young thinkers.

We can also learn a lot about one another by discovering what concepts fascinate us: for instance, in our card game “Kookception,” one prompt is to imagine which concept you’d like to take out for dinner and why. What burning questions would you ask the concept? How might it respond? What kind of evening would you have together? What would you eat? These kinds of playful experimentations with conceptual thinking take the form of “idea stretching” activities within each of the PhiloQuests—by deliberately using their imaginations, kids can do philosophy without even realizing it!

How successful were the PhiloQuests during the pandemic?

It was way more than we ever could have expected, to be honest! As well as being the founding director of Brila, I’m also an affiliate professor at the University of Montreal within the philosophy department, where I run the Institute of Philosophy, Citizenship and Youth. The dean’s office tasked me with creating something online that could be used by our partners during the pandemic: it had to be free, it had to be doable by kids stuck at home, with bit of parent help with set-up, but not too much. And so, alon