When children are very young, they can only think about concrete things—objects they can actually see or touch. The curriculum in early elementary school begins with things that are concrete. For example, science instruction starts with something like growing plants from seeds, and math uses blocks to teach children how to count. Later, children can think about abstract things that they cannot actually touch. They can count without the blocks, and they understand that 10 is larger than 4. In science classes, students begin to study things like the weather or atoms and molecules.
There are estimated ages when children are supposed to be able to move from concrete thinking into the abstract. But my experience is that the age when this occurs varies widely. I have taught students in the 9th grade who had a difficult time with anything abstract. I wondered whether they would ever be able to do it. With persistence and lots of practice, most of them were able to.
Learning occurs when connections form between neurons in the brain. I think the process of moving from concrete to abstract is simply a matter of waiting for enough of those connections to form. Some students are not ready developmentally to think in the abstract, but once they mature a little more, they can. My experience is that once a student “makes the leap” the first time, afterward they are able to think abstract thoughts fairly easily. It takes some students a long time to get there, but they eventually do!
Some people learn best through experiences and they remember things because they got to do it. They can tell a story about what was happening in class, which is how their memory works. One hypothesis is that these students may be the ones who develop abstract thinking later than their peers. They need to have more experiences before they have enough stored in their brain to begin making the necessary connections between neurons. (I first heard this when I read The Dyslexic Advantage by Eide and Eide.)
If your child is still primarily thinking in concrete ways, it’s important to keep trying to get them to think at higher levels. Ask them questions about abstract things and give them fun problems to solve. Play games that require strategic thinking. Talk through how you solve the problems and the strategies to use when playing the games. These experiences will help those neurons grow and those connections form in their brain. After that, abstract thinking will be easier for them.