Teaching Abstract Concepts to Kids

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Your kids can grasp a lot more than you think.

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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?

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.

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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 thinking.

“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 preposterous.”

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.

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About Author

Christine Yount Jones

Christine has more than 26 years of children’s ministry experience. She is the Executive Editor of Children’s Ministry Magazine, has authored many books and articles on children’s ministry, and serves as co-director of the KidMin Conference. She’s responsible for development and innovation of new resources. Follow Christine on Twitter @ChristineYJones

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