P4C: Can you own a river?

A mirror, a path, a tree.

Born held tight, dying free.

…was a riddle featured in last week’s bulletin. Did your students get it? The answer was, “river”. Close up, you can see your reflection in it. Boats can use it as a path. From above, or on a map, the tributaries feed into it like the branches of a tree. Up in the hills, it is held between its banks, and then as it “dies” its waters are free to spread into the sea.

“Rivers” is a common topic and it’s bursting with philosophical opportunities. Here’s some questions from a session I ran this week in a school (3-dimensional, in-person visits now available as well as Zooms!)

Should owning the riverbank mean you own the river?

This question is rich with real world context. In England, 95% of rivers are in private hands, leaving many bathers at risk of breaking the law. See this BBC article for more.

Put students into fours and arrange one pair to argue for yes, the other for no. A couple of minutes in, get them to do a “brainstand” and swap sides before giving them the chance to express their own opinion in whole-class discussion. 

The question encourages students to think about fairness, ownership and rights. If you can own a river, what do you actually own? The water? The riverbed? The wildlife? Campaigners often use the phrase “our rivers” – do rivers fall into a special category of things that should belong to everyone?

If a river flows through your land, can you do what you want with the water?

Only a third of the world’s rivers remain free-flowing and many argue it’s putting people at risk. Who are the winners and who are the losers? When is it acceptable to take water from rivers?

“The Water Catcher”, a favourite stimulus from our back-catalogue, sees a fisherman confront a farmer for damming the river to irrigate his crops. It’s attached below and is great for starting an enquiry, or see this BBC Adaptation if you can access it.

I intended to just use one of these questions as a warm-up for the classic, “Can you step into the same river twice?” but the students had so much to say, we never got there! 

Philosophy Man Live!

After half term, we are offering a weekly philosophy webinar show, initially for Years 5 & 6 (9-11yrs). The first batch will run on Tuesday afternoons, from 1.30 to 2.15. All you need is an internet connection, whiteboard and speakers. One or both of us will host the session, and there will be pauses while you gather responses from the children which you can feed into the show via a text chat. Unlike a Zoom room, there’s no need for a camera pointing at your class, so no need to gather permissions either: it will be more like a philosophical text-in, with shout-outs to the children sharing their ideas!

It’s a form of team-teaching which allows teachers or TAs to extend their facilitation skills while providing an entertaining and stimulating session of dialogue for the children. Cost is £30+VAT per session per class. From January onwards, we’ll be taking bookings in half-termly blocks of six sessions for £150+VAT. Please email for details if this is of interest – might be a great way of providing some additional PPA cover to take the pressure off of staff in these challenging times. 

Best wishes,


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