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Early Years Learning - Concrete vs Abstract

 "My child does not recognize certain alphabets"

"My child tends to shy away whenever we have guests at home"

"My child does not show interest in number recognition, but loves to mess around in sand"

"My child loves to speak, but when I ask her to speak vocabulary with a particular alphabet, she goes silent"

"My child understands shapes, but is unable to find them in his surroundings"

Notice the difference in the implications of these statements - they represent some examples of the difference between what we call concrete vs abstract learning during the early years at Morning Glorie, play school in Gurgaon, and online homeschooling in India. All too often, we tend to focus on learning which can be measured, which is concrete. What we tend to forget is, every experience, new or repeated, is a learning - this is truer during the early years of life, though it is something to ponder on and incorporate in our own lives irrespective of age.

How many of us have grown up in learning systems where the emphasis is on how well you perform academically, irrespective of understanding the logic behind what we are learning? Isn't it time we broke out of that mindset and leave a different legacy for our children? 

To reach there, it is important to understand that learning has two aspects - the concrete and the abstract. Here, we try to differentiate between concrete and abstract learning and thinking to give an insight into the systems which need to be changed, and what we are already trying to bring about in our own small way.

What is Concrete Learning?

Concrete learning refers to that which is absolute in nature. It is broadly divided under the following heads - 


Learning to recognize ABCs (uppercase/lowercase) as per age, the associate phonic sounds, building vocabulary all form part of alphabet learning and language development


Number recognition, concept of quantity, learning to count are concrete concepts related to numeracy during early years learning. 


Identification of primary, secondary, tertiary and neutral colours is a concrete learning concept. 


2-D shapes like circle, square, triangle, rectangle, pentagon etc, the number of sides in each shape, equal vs non-equal sides, 3-D shapes like sphere, cube, cylinder and cone - these are all concrete concepts around shape.

What is Abstract Learning

Abstract learning on the other hand refers to a way of think and developing a set of life skills, which ultimately enables a child to link the concrete concepts mentioned above to real life. These are what enables holistic development for every child.

Experiential Learning

The concept of experiential learning is focused around learning by experiencing, or learning by doing. There is no better teacher than real life, and the ability to link concrete concepts with reality stems from the ability to experience. 

A simple example to drive this point - you introduce your child to the shape triangle. Standalone, it means nothing. But then, your child saw a nacho chip and realized it was the same shape as what you had introduced. Now that there is a live association, they will explore their surroundings and try to find other triangles, or squares, or reds and browns. Watching germination to understand the lifecycle of a plant, or mixing two primary colours as an experiment to get a secondary colour are means of reinforcing a concrete concept.

Cross-Linking of Vocabulary

What colour is milk? White. What else is white? Clouds. Where do you find clouds? In the sky. What else is in the sky? Sun. Is the sun hot or cold? Hot. What else is hot? Cooked dal. And so on. Starting from one simple concept, a child can be guided to think and apply themselves and link one vocabulary with another.

This calls for a practical approach to learning and developing analytical skills.

Problem Solving and Lateral Thinking

A child can be given many situations which may appear simple to us yet require them to think of solutions to that problem. Odd-man out and mazes are some such examples, as we discussed in our earlier post on problem solving. 

A lateral thinking approach to problem solving helps children as young as 3 years of age to find problems to solutions, and take pride in them. When they are unable to in the first go, it gives them the motivation to keep trying to succeed. It is our responsibility as their caregivers and educators to ensure that they take up the challenge with zeal, and not feel demotivated.

Developing Social and Other Life Skills

The thing about the formative years is, that every experience is a learning. This includes development of gross and fine motor skills, sensory development and even development of social skills including peer group interaction.

While focusing on concrete concepts as benchmarks of learning, we tend to miss out on these other aspects. A holistic learning module must focus on these crucial aspects of being.

We sometimes tend to compare our child with another, or with the averages defined for age appropriate learning. Why is my child not interested in writing? Why can't they identify the alphabets? It is very important to focus and appreciate the strengths of each child. Perhaps they can colour beautifully instead. Or maybe they are popular among friends and even exhibiting leadership skills at such a tender age.

At Morning Glorie, play school in Gurgaon and online homeschooling in India, we always celebrate the strengths and uniqueness of each child. Concrete learning is something which happens in due course in most cases. It is important to remember that without the abstract skillset, a lot remains lost to every child. A healthy combination of both helps a child balance out their learning - appreciate the strengths and guide a child where they need guidance. Only do this in a manner that remains fun. After all, these years only but come once in life.

Up Next - April 2021, dealing with covid


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