How do young children learn abstract concepts?

The understanding and use of abstract concepts – such as idea or freedom – are skills that are fundamental to education and most other areas of life. Despite this, there is little research on how abstract concepts are learned during childhood, particular at around age four, when children start school and the number of abstract concepts they know grows rapidly.

To date, most theories assume that our ability to learn abstract concepts depends solely on linguistic skills, for example, we learn the meaning of freedom by hearing or reading about it. This would suggest that children with language disorders should be especially impaired in learning abstract concepts, in comparison to their typically developing peers.

However, recent work by Professor Vigliocco and colleagues indicates that emotional development may also play a critical role in learning abstract concepts. This suggests that children who have atypical emotional responses – for example, those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – may also find it challenging to learn abstract concepts.

In this project the researchers aim to:

  • Provide the first assessment of how abstract knowledge develops in typically developing children, children with Language Impairment (LI) and children with ASD (with or without associated language impairments).
  • Provide a critical assessment of the role of linguistic and emotional development as precursors for learning abstract concepts.
  • Develop criteria to inform teaching and learning strategies and policies.