Mrs. Nadeau took her preschoolers on a field trip to the Angstadts' farm. While there, they visited the farmhouse, henhouse, barn, and stable. Back at school, several 3-year-olds tried to create a simple map of the farm on the floor in the block area. They used a variety of wooden unit blocks to depict the different buildings. Some of the 4-year-olds cut shapes out of construction paper and glued them onto a sheet to represent the different places they walked to on the farm. They decided to use crayons to draw some of the farmer's animals on their map. Later, during group time, the children excitedly identified photos of the farm buildings that Mrs. Nadeau had taken from various perspectives.
Valuable Background Experience
Young children need a wide range of concrete experiences, such as the visit to the farm, in order to interact with their environment in meaningful ways. This background knowledge helps them understand concepts from their world, such as knowing where to place the farm buildings on a paper map. These real experiences help them discover new ways to represent objects, such as the blocks and paper shapes for the buildings, as they think abstractly.
Young children, like the 4-year-olds in the example above, learn to make mental pictures in their minds that they can refer to as they make their representations. The photos of the buildings that Mrs. Nadeau took help the preschoolers to create visual maps as they describe how the henhouse is "behind" the barn and the farmhouse is "next to" the stable.
Abstract Thinking Around the Room
After reading the classic story Caps for Sale with her father, 4-year-old Emily says, in a very serious tone, "I think this is a story about bad monkeys. They stole the hats!" As she develops her abstract thinking skills, Emily recognizes a significant idea in this seemingly "funny" story. We can tell by her serious tone that she is already connecting the idea to her own life and feelings. To further develop Emily's abstract thinking, her dad asks a question about the main character's feelings: "How do you think the Peddler felt when he woke up?"
Later, when Emily tells her father which hats in the story are her favorites, she is developing an important abstract thinking skill. She is mentally grouping the hats into categories and comparing and contrasting them to decide which are her favorites.
At the kitchen table, 4-year-old Hector compares two of his collections of mixed objects ("beach things" — shells, pebbles, smooth washed glass; and "woods things" — twigs, leaves, rocks). He tells his twin-brother Morgan, "When I count, my beach collection has more stuff. It's bigger." He is aware of numeration as an increasingly abstract idea that isn't affected by the different characteristics (size, texture, shape) of the objects he counted in his collections. To develop the twins' abstract ideas about counting through writing, their mother invites them to use written tally marks to represent how many things are in Hector's collection of beach items.
What You Can Do
- Offer lots of time for you children to play with manipulatives. Let them explore shapes through physically experimenting with blocks and puzzles. Provide puzzle play where your child can see the outlines of some pieces and need to visualize where the others must go.
- Help them see that objects can be counted in any order. Let them discover that anything (musical beats, cookies) can be counted. Through practice, help them learn counting rules. For example, each object must relate to just one counting word. Early counting is a form of abstraction for young children.
- Go on a scavenger hunt. Create maps that are smaller versions of a specific area. This provides children with practice in giving and receiving directions and using clues to find hidden objects.