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Can younger children understand metaphors?

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Can a six-year-old understand what Jesus meant when he described himself as “the Bread of Life”?

How about a nine-year-old?

The answer is YES --if it is properly and simply explained.


For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the answer was “no.” It was widely believed that children were mostly incapable of understanding metaphorical abstractions such as “Bread of Life.” This belief was enshrined in the early 20th century by Piaget’s theory of childhood development which classified children ages 7 to 11 in the “concrete” stage with the ability to think “abstractly” appearing sometime after age 10. The historical inclination to treat children as empty vessels which can only be filled with information – is a legacy that still plagues some Sunday school curriculums and teaching styles to this day.In fact, you can still find many bloggers and teachers parroting this old theory to this day about children and metaphors.

Fortunately, modern empirical research into what children are capable of understanding has dispelled many outdated theories, …which is a good thing because the Bible is FULL of metaphors and Jesus used a lot of them! “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field.” "You are the salt of the earth." “For this (prodigal) son of mine …was lost and is found.” Not to mention, “The Lord is my shepherd,” “God is my rock and salvation,” and “We are the clay, you are the potter.” Today, researchers believe that even preschoolers have a rudimentary ability to create and understand metaphors. In fact, they describe our brains as “hard-wired” for metaphors (comparisons that require abstract thinking) – which is the very thing that sets our species apart from all others.

The rest of this article has examples of "how to teach metaphors to children" including a chart of how to teach the metaphor that Jesus is the Bread of Life. Lots of great tips!

Get the full PDF of this article for teachers. It's available to our Registered (free) Members and Supporting Members in our Teacher Training resources. Sign up today!


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