How to Teach Kids Abstract Thinking

By Julie Alice Huson
Encourage your child to think beyond the
Encourage your child to think beyond the "here and now."

Children are mostly concrete thinkers. To them, a toy bucket at the beach is a container for carrying sand from one place to another. Abstract thinkers tend to use their brains more creatively to consider concepts more deeply. To these children, the toy pail might be a soldier's hat or a castle tower or a form for shaping wet sand into a fortress. While there is a normal range of abstract thinking ability in humans, you can teach and encourage the skill of reaching beyond the obvious thought in children through the use of specific strategies and activities.

Thinking Out Loud

Verbalize the thought process when working out a problem around the house. Talk aloud while thinking by making comments such as "I'm wondering what else I can put in these cookies besides raisins. Dried cherries are similar so I am thinking about using those instead."

Discuss "how" and "why" questions to search for explanations; such as "How do you think these ants got into the kitchen?" or "Why did this window leak when it rained?"

Search for new ways to think about things with questions like "Are there other things that would work well for making a doll bed?" or "How many ways can we think of to use up these extra eggs?"

Using Analogies

Compare new situations to more familiar examples to help children make connections between the known and unknown. Encourage your child to compare by asking things such as, "Does this make you think about a story we've read together?"

Ask questions such as "How do other people make new friends?" to get children to consider bringing new perspectives to their own problems.

Use examples to encourage children how to apply concrete thinking with more creative considerations. Say, "This problem is like that time you got lost at the mall and then figured out how to get help."

Using External Supports

Organize abstract thinking with tools like time lines and flow charts.

Help children use drawings or diagrams to tangibly depict more abstract concepts. Overlapping circles -- known as Venn Diagrams -- show kids a concrete way to compare and contrast ideas, for instance.

Map out a plan for problem solving on paper to help the concrete thinker use representation to plot through a complicated process. As the child becomes more adept at thinking more abstractly, gradually withdraw the supports to increase cognitive creativity.


Avoid confusing language until a child is able to think more abstractly. Metaphors such as "He was a bear before his morning coffee," can be misinterpreted by concrete-thinking children. Don't think of brain teasers and puzzles as substitutes for encouraging creative cognitive thinking, as there is little evidence to show that these enhance development of abstract thinking tendencies.

About the Author

Julie Alice Huson is a parent and an educator with a Master of Science in education. She has more than 25 years of teaching experience, and has written educational materials for Colonial Williamsburg. She has also worked in consultation with the California Department of Education. Huson received a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching in 2011.