Abstract thinking is a process that involves thinking conceptually about things that aren’t physically in front of us — the “bigger picture,” so to speak. There are many ways to think abstractly and see “the big picture,” but essentially, it means putting aside our current situation and thinking outside of the box.
Ultimately, it is a more creative, complex way of thinking than concrete thinking.
Concrete vs. Abstract Thinking
Concrete thinking refers to very literal thinking about something that is physically present. A concrete thinker will see an object and think about the physical attributes of the object and how it looks. On the other hand, an abstract thinker may consider how these objects could be used or where they came from.
Concrete reasoning focuses on the use of our five senses. What exactly are we seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching? Those descriptions are concrete.
Imagining different uses, making assumptions about something, or picturing situations where these things may be helpful are all examples of abstract thinking. Abstract thinking allows us to form theories, use figurative language, and make jokes.
For example, imagine looking at a beach bucket and shovel. Someone thinking concretely may notice that these objects are the same color and the handle of the bucket looks sturdy.
When thinking abstractly, someone will recognize that these are beach-related items and may imagine using them to build a sandcastle. While nothing about those objects physically describes a sandcastle, thinking abstractly allows that connection to be made.
Most adults are capable of both types of thinking and can purposefully change their reasoning method relatively with ease. We are able to think about physical attributes while also thinking abstractly about something. It’s not that there are two types of thinkers in the world; we simply can think in these two different ways.
Unique Strengths and Abilities: Thinking Patterns
As parents, we know that all of our children — from babies to adulthood — are 100% their own person, unique in every way. As such, some show higher inclinations to excel at abstract or critical reasoning.
For instance, one study showed that some individuals on the autism spectrum might struggle with abstract or conceptual reasoning. However, this is not always the case: some people, particularly those with Asperger Syndrome (AS), show enhanced abilities when it comes to abstract and fluid reasoning.
Signs that a person might struggle to think abstractly include:
- Having a very literal understanding of things
- Showing difficulty comprehending metaphors or exaggerations
- Having trouble with complex problem-solving
- Difficulty seeing another’s perspective or reading social cues
Abstract Thinking in Children
Abstract thinking is often a more difficult concept for children. Young children and teens tend to get caught up in the here-and-now of daily life, focusing on something physically in front of them or occurring at the moment.
Children develop using concrete and abstract thinking over time. As babies grow and learn about their environment, they use concrete thinking. This sets the foundation for more complex thinking as they mature. In order to think abstractly about something, we first need to concretely understand what it is.
Psychologist Jean Piaget’s research showed that abstract reasoning skills are the last to develop in children during the formal operational stage of development. In most children, this is between ages 11 and 16.
Why Is Abstract Thinking Important?
Problem-solving is an abstract thinking skill. In order to solve most problems, even minor ones, a child will need to begin thinking abstractly to find solutions. The ability to make analogies, use metaphors, and understand underlying lessons in a story are all forms of abstract thinking.
How To Encourage Abstract Thinking
We can model abstract thoughts and abstract ideas for our children out loud to assist them in developing this skill. Providing opportunities for imaginative play assists in this as well.
Combine school and play with academic-based toys to model the difference between concrete and abstract thinking.
In general, using math manipulatives to count is a concrete form of thinking. However, asking “what if” questions can spark the beginning of abstract thinking.
For example, if you and your child are trying to build the number four, you could give them two blue beads, hide the rest, and say, “What if we couldn’t use any more of the blue?” Three-dimensional objects are an excellent tool to introduce the basis of abstract reasoning.
Children can begin to use higher-order thinking to decide what other things could help build four without physically seeing it.
Benefits of Understanding Abstract Concepts
Abstract thinking can allow one to create a model in their head and manipulate that model without needing any physical objects to act through it.
Imagine how useful this can be for future engineers, scientists, or business entrepreneurs. There is no limit to abstract thinking, and it will become necessary as children get older.
Encourages Wise Decisions
In teens, abstract reasoning helps them make better and more logical decisions. Teens who have practiced abstract thinking have the ability to think about how their immediate decisions will affect them in the long term.
Instead of deciding what they want in the immediate moment or whatever is cool with their friends, teens who utilize abstract thinking will consider the consequences of what may come tomorrow if they make the choice at hand. After all, the concept of tomorrow itself is abstract!
Expanding the thinking process to abstract thought helps build empathy. The ability to see situations from another perspective is an abstract skill. While children can’t physically see another’s feelings, they can imagine how they may feel in that circumstance.
Regarding mental health, abstract thought allows children and adults to see past negative situations and imagine better, brighter days ahead. Optimism and point of view come from abstract thoughts of what could improve a situation.
The ability to make a prediction or inference is also abstract thought. Students will need this as part of a full toolbelt of literacy skills to examine a work of text (including how to understand metaphors and similes).
Not only that, but abstract thinking encourages the creativity needed to write essays, books, poems, and more. Developing concepts and theories are all parts of abstract thinking.
A Guide to Thinking Abstractly
While abstract thinking requires certain brain development and can’t directly be taught, there are practices to introduce, improve, and work on this skill.
Engaging in pretend play with your child can spark imaginative thinking and develop the skills to think at a basic level of abstraction. One way to do this is with pretend play or telling a choose-your-own-adventure story.
Model acting out events for your child and allow them to decide how these events may unravel. Teaching children to identify the beginning, middle, and end of a story can be helpful in this as well. It gives them directive steps to take without giving implicit instruction.
Verbal Situational Practice
Verbalizing and practicing different situations can help strengthen this skill. Talk through a situation with your child; you can pose questions about why certain things may have happened the way they did.
For example, you may tell them something as simple as, “We’re all out of bread. How could that have happened?”
Begin with the most basic and obvious reasons, like eating it all, and get sillier and more creative as you go. Maybe the dog ate the bread while you weren’t home, and now it’s all gone! This practice is so simple and takes little effort, but it can be a fun conversation with your little one.
Additionally, you can pose problems and brainstorm solutions together. This is a fun car ride activity. Start by saying, “What would we do if…” and pose a far-fetched scenario. Together you can go back and forth, offering solutions on what you could do.
Connections and Analogies
We all love reading with our children at bedtime! This is a great time to work on abstract thinking skills. Pause throughout the book and ask your child, “What does this remind you of?” Model and practice making connections between the book and daily life.
Making these connections is not something that happens automatically when reading. A child may take the story at face value for what it is without thinking any further into it.
However, when thinking abstractly, we can connect this to real-life situations by forming correlations in our minds. This is especially true for learning books that discuss behaviors and mimic everyday issues that a growing person will encounter.
In doing so, we can better understand the lessons being taught in these stories and use them to learn from.
Plan Something Together
As mentioned above, the concept of the future is abstract in itself. Planning an event or making plans for the following day involves the ability to think about something that is not right in front of you.
Take time to plan something with your child — a party, a lunch date, or an outing. This is a fun bonding experience; it allows them to feel a part of the decision-making process and works on their abstract thought skills. Younger children may feel less stress when given a choice between two items, like “Do you want to eat hamburgers or hot dogs?”
Think Outside the Box
Encourage and engage in thinking outside the box. Choose any mundane object: a book, a spoon, a clock, or anything else with a predetermined and specific purpose.
Conceptualize ways to use this item in a new manner. Maybe the book can become a tower, the spoon a microphone. This can go hand in hand with playing pretend but has a more task-specific direction.
Practicing these skills with your child(ren) can be so much fun that they won’t even know that they’re working on skill development. A win-win!
Abstract thinking is a way to consider things that are not tangible. When children grow, they first learn concrete thinking and slowly develop the ability to think abstractly. There are many benefits to this type of thinking and fun ways to practice this in everyday life!
Understanding Concrete Thinking: What It Is, Limitations & Benefits | Healthline
Understanding Abstract Thinking: Development, Benefits & More | Healthline
Formal Operational Stage | Simply Psychology
Associations Between Conceptual Reasoning, Problem Solving, and Adaptive Ability in High-functioning Autism | PMC
9 Ways Abstract Thinking Will Help Teens Reason Better | Moms