Literal Thinkers

salt shaker

A preschooler and I were talking about the ocean, and he asked, “Who put salt in the ocean?” Of course I responded that God put the salt in the ocean. By the look on his face, I could tell my preschool friend was thinking of someone with a big salt shaker over the ocean. I realized my response was too abstract for his preschooler’s mind. He was thinking of what he knew about adding salt by a person using a salt shaker.

Preschoolers think of words literally. They take the literal meaning of words or phrases. Another way of saying it is that they think concretely. Their thinking goes to what the word actually means. If you say, “I feel blue,” a preschooler would look at you to see if your skin is blue. As literal thinkers, they are not able to understand abstract concepts or words. Our words can also be very confusing to preschoolers when the words have different meanings.

This can be challenging to us as preschool leaders, especially in talking about God and faith. These are abstract concepts, so we have to interpret them to preschoolers in ways they can understand. Much of our language about our faith and beliefs are abstract. We use symbols and analogies which are confusing to the preschooler’s literal mind. For example, “Give your heart to Jesus,” “He is the Good Shepherd,” or “Our sins are washed away.”

We can help preschoolers by considering the words we use.

  • Think about the words or phrases you say to preschoolers.

  • Speak to preschoolers in ways they can understand so they will not have misconceptions about God and Jesus.

  • Consider the words of songs you teach preschoolers. Some of the old children’s songs might be endearing to us as adults, but the figurative language is lost to preschoolers.

  • Give clear instructions.

  • Avoid figurative language, metaphors, or similes, such as Jesus is our lighthouse.

  • Remember that preschoolers process one concept at a time. This is why they cannot yet process how Jesus (a person) is a lighthouse (an object). They cannot cross one concept over to another concept.

  • Recognize that preschoolers who are second language learners, as well as preschoolers with autism, will especially have difficulty understanding figurative or symbolic language.

  • Talk about the 9 Christian concept areas we use with preschoolers: God, Jesus, Bible, church, self, God’s Creation, family, community, and world. Use phrases such as those on the Christian Concept Areas chart in Mission Friends Guide for Leaders, pages 44–45. These phrases are concrete ways of talking about the concept areas.

Preschoolers think literally, and they go through a gradual process in gaining the ability to think abstractly as they move into the elementary school years. We can help our preschoolers in this process by guiding their mental development in appropriate ways. Recognize activities that will help preschoolers’ mental development. Provide a rich language environment, activities that foster eye-hand coordination, matching games, sequencing, rhythms, and problem-solving. We especially want preschoolers to understand about God without causing them confusion. So keep in mind that your preschoolers are literal thinkers.

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