Teaching abstract concepts to elementary- and preschool-age children can be a challenge because they may not be developmentally able to grasp less concrete ideas. But there are specific techniques you can use to help younger kids understand abstract ideas.
Your kids can grasp a lot more than you think.
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.
When Does Abstract Thought Develop?
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.”
How Do Kids Think?
At each developmental level, a child develops his or her ability to think abstractly by using two basic tools.
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.
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.
How Shall We Then Teach?
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.
And get kids up and moving. Effective learning occurs when children are personally or actively involved.
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.”
“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.
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?”
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 world.
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 the former executive editor of Children’s Ministry Magazine.