Teaching Abstract Concepts to Kids



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Your kids can grasp a lot more than you

When 4-year-old Craig thought about Jesus “coming into his
heart”–a common metaphor for salvation-he had a vision of opening
his mouth, sticking out his tongue and having Jesus walk down his
tongue to enter his heart.

He missed the point.

So we wonder, can concrete-thinking children really understand
abstract concepts? Or do we just confuse them by talking about
abstract faith issues?

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One school of thought says that children of all ages can think
abstractly–if they’re taught appropriately. Let’s explore how that
affects your children’s ministry.

Thinking develops in stages, but these stages may not occur in the
neat age categories as some developmental charts have suggested.
Jane Healy, author of Your Child’s Growing Mind (Doubleday), says:
“It’s nonsensical to put a grade level on [abstract]thinking.
Because abstract thinking, we know now for sure, develops gradually
over the life span. And even little children can respond abstractly
in some kinds of spontaneous ways.”

Educational psychologist Healy points to the example of a
3-year-old who dances around the room and says, “I feel like a
sunbeam today.” That abstract simile can lead to metaphorical
thinking–“I am a sunbeam”-which is another level of abstract

“Children are all very different in the pace at which they
master abstractions,” says Healy. “So to expect a whole class of
8-year-olds to be able to grasp something at the same level is

At each developmental level, a child develops his or her ability to
think abstractly by using two basic tools.

Mental hooks — Previous bits of knowledge are
the mental hooks (or schemata) that children hang new information
on. Snow can be an abstract concept to a child in Florida. If you
try to explain snow as a powdery substance, she may hang this new
concept on a mental hook of bath powder. To help the child fully
understand what snow is like, she must have a hands-on experience
with what actual snow is like.

Patterns — As children’s schemata grow and
their cognitive abilities develop, children are able to use mental
operations. These mental operations enable children to think more
abstractly about relationships or patterns of objects without the
actual objects. For example, a 4-year-old can take two apples away
from a group of five and determine that there are three apples
left. An 8-year-old can subtract two from five without using any
objects and arrive at the same answer.

The first step in helping children understand abstract concepts
is to provide appropriate mental hooks for the concept. That is
why, rather than just telling children that God is a divine being,
we also tell them that God is a father, a friend, a provider and
more. We “hang” God on mental hooks they can grasp.

If we are to effectively teach children, we must take seriously
their need to experience and establish relevant mental hooks. The
following are ideas to revolutionize your ministry’s approach to
teaching abstract concepts.

Throw away worksheets. The idea that a good
classroom is one where kids sit still and do pencil-and-paper
activities is detrimental to real learning. According to the
National Association for the Education of Young Children, these
teaching methods decrease children’s motivation to learn. Child
development researchers have demonstrated that children acquire
knowledge about their world through playful interaction with
objects and people.

Create a learning environment that is full of sensory
experiences. Your kids must smell, taste, hear, touch or see the
abstract concept you want to convey. See the “Adam and Eve” box for
an effective lesson about the abstract concept of temptation.

Store chairs. And get kids up and moving.
Effective learning occurs when children are personally or actively

In fact, cognitive growth is enhanced by personal involvement.
In an experiment cited in Your Child’s Growing Mind, a revolving
bar apparatus was rigged up for one kitten to pull another kitten
in a basket. Every day the same kitten would pull the other kitten
around a patterned box. Both kittens had the same visual stimuli.
But at the end of the experiment, the working kitten had more brain
growth than the passive kitten.

Close the door. Noise is good. Healy says some
teachers who crave control “are probably not going to like what
they see in the kind of classroom that I would find very appealing.
It might look unstructured to them, undisciplined…There needs to
be structure, but within that control, there needs to be
exploration of ideas. And again, people who have trouble with that
are going to have trouble teaching children in a way that children
will either enjoy or profit from.”

Ask questions. “The teacher has to be able to
stop dispensing information long enough to listen to the children
and encourage the children’s questions,” says Healy. “And that’s
how you build the higher conceptual thinking-by answering their
question with another question that pushes them into thinking
harder about it and reflecting more on it.”

I experienced this with my 2 1/2-year-old son. As we watched a
passing train, Grant asked, “Why is that a train?” I asked him,
“Why is that a train?” His answer revealed reasoning abilities I
was unaware he possessed. He said: “It has wheels. It has a
caboose, and someone’s driving it.” I couldn’t have explained it
better. (See the “Questions! Questions!” box for question-asking

When you ask questions, you’ll discover whether the child has
the adequate mental hooks to attach an abstract concept to. In a
preschool lesson about Elijah and the widow, wide-eyed kids
listened intently. But when the teacher asked the children, “Who
knows what a widow is?” one girl’s hand shot up, and she answered,
“It’s a spider!”

Appeal to children’s emotions. Giving children
an opportunity to express their feelings makes learning personal to
them. Ask questions such as “How would you feel if you had been
Abraham?” or “How did you feel when you were kind to Kyle?”

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Build bridges. Children must be able to connect
an abstract concept to something they’ve already experienced in
their own world-their mental hook. If learning is relevant to
children’s known experience, they’ll be able to cross the “bridge”
to abstract learning.

In one class, a teacher built bridges of understanding by having
young children play musical chairs. After the game, children
discussed how they felt when chairs kept disappearing. Then the
teacher asked, “Are there ever times on the playground when there
aren’t enough swings to play on?” Yes, the children nodded. “That’s
called scarcity,” explained the teacher. And she went on to build a
bridge of understanding to explain scarcity of resources in the

Use age-appropriate terms. Iris Mears,
executive president of Children’s Christian Ministries Association
in California, explains that children may have difficulty with some
terms. She uses the term “Boss” instead of “Lord” with children and
they understand that. She suggests referring to the Bible as
“letters from God” and being extra sensitive in the way we describe
salvation. Rather than focusing on eternity, she says, “I try to
approach it not so much as living eternally as to the importance of
a love relationship-that God loved us so much that he sent his son
Jesus who showed us and told us about God the Father.”

Kids may not pass a theological vocabulary test, but they’ll
begin to understand the concept better.

Provide faith manipulatives. One of the newest
mathematics teaching methods is the use of hands-on manipulatives:
Kids use blocks, rods or other objects to learn addition and
subtraction. Long, orange rods may each represent 10. Short, red
rods each represent one. When a teacher asks a child to make the
number 45, the child pulls together four “10” rods and five “one”
rods to create 45.

Christianity is relational; we have a relationship with God and
with each other. The hands-on material of our faith is our
relationships. Rather than just talking about kindness, model it in
your relationships with children and other adults. And point out
abstract qualities that children display, such as “Thank you for
being patient, Deziree.”

Expose children to the abstract concepts of our faith, but don’t
rush them. As children mature, concepts will meld with their
cognitive growth. Follow the example of Jesus-the master teacher.
He understood that people need mental hooks to hang abstract
concepts on. Even to crowds of adults, Jesus used concrete parables
and object lessons to explain abstract concepts.

You are a guide on your children’s route to a deeper
understanding of abstract faith concepts. You may feel as if you’re
just erecting meaningless billboards along the way with only some
kids grasping concepts. But if you apply these principles, some day
your kids will arrive at a full understanding.

Christine Yount Jones is executive editor of Children’s
Ministry Magazine and Group’s Children’s Ministry

Adam and Eve

Read aloud Genesis 3. Then have kids act out the story.
Afterward, have kids visit the following learning centers in
different areas of the room.

Set out a platter of grapes. Allow children to touch and smell
the grapes, but forbid children to eat any. Then have children talk
about how difficult it is to look at the grapes but not eat

Ask: How do you think Eve felt when she saw a
beautiful fruit she couldn’t eat? What is something you’ve wanted
but someone said you couldn’t have? How did you feel?

Set out a glass-caged (non-poisonous) snake. Let brave kids
handle the snake. Have kids practice crawling on their bellies like
a snake. Then have children talk about how the serpent must’ve felt
when he was cursed to crawl on his belly.

Ask: Why did God punish the serpent? Why did
God punish Adam and Eve? Have you ever been punished for breaking a
rule? How did you feel?

From a pile of scrap materials or sheets of newsprint, have
children make new clothing for themselves as Adam and Eve had to.
When children are finished with the learning centers, play a game
of Hide and Seek with the children hiding from “God” you can play
the part. Discuss how it felt to hide from God.

Ask: Have you ever done something wrong and
wanted to hide so no one would find out? What did Adam and Eve do
wrong? Why did God want them to follow his rules? (Focus on the
fact that God loves us and wants us to be happy; following God’s
rules is the route to happiness.)

Let kids eat the grapes as they discuss temptation.

Ask: Have you ever been told not to eat some
candy, but you really wanted to? Have you ever eaten candy even
though someone told you not to?

Say: That’s temptation; you were tempted to eat
the candy. When you gave in to the temptation, you broke a rule.
You disobeyed.

Ask: Have you ever been tempted to break
another rule? If so, what? What helped you not give in to
temptation? What happened if you gave in to temptation?



Ask children these types of questions to get them thinking about
a Bible story:

These are very factual questions, such as “What did Jesus say to
the Pharisees?” or “How many chariots were covered by the Red

These questions develop higher levels of thinking. These include
questions such as “Why did Peter start sinking as he walked on the
water?” or “Why do you think God wanted the Israelites to stop

These questions seek specific outcomes, such as “How can you serve
your family this week?” or “Who is someone you need to love? What
is one thing you can do this week to love that person?”



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