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Teaching Abstract Concepts to Concrete-Thinking Kids


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 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.”

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 tips.)

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?”

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 world.

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Christine Yount Jones is Content Director for Outreach Media Group. She has published several books and hundreds of articles about ministry in the last three decades. Before his death in 2003, Michael Yount and Christine had three children. Now, she and her husband, Ray Jones, together have five grown kids.