Understanding Figurative & Literal Language For Kids

FrogAndToadAllYearEvery night I tuck my son Max (3-years old) into bed and ask him what two books or stories he wants to read.  There are many to choose from but one popular favorite is Frog and Toad All Year, in which Frog and Toad have adventures related to the different seasons of the year.  Max’s favorite story from this book is “The Corner” in which Frog’s father tells him “Spring is just around the corner.”  Frog then goes looking around corners to find Spring.  As Frog searches around corners in the woods and by the river he finds clues that winter is in fact ending until at last…he finds Spring when he comes around the corner of his house to see his mother and father working in the garden while the birds are chirping in the trees.  Max is fascinated by this story and struggles with the literal and figurative connotation of Spring being “around the corner.”  If you ever want to understand how many sayings we use in every day vernacular…hang out with a kid and listen to their questions.

Max:  “Why is Spring around the corner?

Me:  “It’s a saying, it means Spring is almost here.”

Max:  “Is it around the corner of Frog’s house?

Me:  “Spring is a season, so it is a time…not a place.”

Max:  “What’s time?

Me:  “Uhhhh…well…its what makes the clock work.”

Max:  “Like batteries?

Me:  “No, time is like…

Max:  “Like when Dusty Crophopper wins the race?

Me:  “Sure…like that.”

Max:  “So is Spring around the corner of our house?

Me:  “No, it’s an idiom.”

Max:  “Who an idiot?

Me:  “Let’s look for Spring around the corner of our house tomorrow.

Max:  “Okay Dada.  Dada?”

Me:  “Yeah Max?”

Max:  “It’s just a saying…okay…its just a saying.”

Me:  “Okay, thanks buddy.”

Max:  “You’re welcome Dada.

Max is good at clearing things like that up for me.  “What is time?”  I had no idea how to answer that one!  My instinct was to say “Time is relative Max,” but that opens up the discussion of Relativity, Einstein, and Worm Holes…and not the kind of holes worms dig in the dirt of our backyard.  A few months ago my wife Kate told him she was going to go “jump in the shower.”  Much to Max’s disappointment he walked into the bathroom and found Kate was just showering.  He asked, “Why aren’t you jumping?”  We explained that “jumping in the shower” meant “getting in the shower.”  Since then, that has been the gold standard in our house for explaining expressions, sayings, and idioms.

Me:  “Max, do you remember when Mommy said she was going to ‘jump in the shower?‘”

Max:  “Yeah…but that means she’s gonna take a shower.”

Me:  “Right.  It’s a saying.  Just like, ‘Spring is just around the corner.'”

Max:  “Yeah.  It’s just a saying.  Saying ‘Spring is just around the corner’ means Spring is almost here…just like how ‘jump in the shower’ means get in the shower.  You don’t jump in the shower…that would be silly

Me:  “Right.”

MaxShadesOfGreyI give Max a kiss goodnight, a few tickles, lots of hugs, a few more kisses, and then tip-toe to the door where I say the same thing every night:  “Night-night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite, I’ll see you in my dreams tonight.”  Max rolls over and cuddles in for sleep.  He hasn’t asked me yet what a bedbug is.  “I love you Max,” I say.  Max replies, “I love you Dada.”  Then I slowly close the door behind me and say, “I’ll see you for breakfast.”  Instead of repeating this back to me like he normally does…he pursues the conversation a little further with one more question:

Max:  “Dada?”

Me:  “Yes Max?”

Max:  “Where did you take your dump?

This is a conversation for another time.  ‘Til then…it is time to go outside and start searching – Spring is just around the corner!

Dodge (1-year old) looks longingly outside as the days turn warmer.
Dodge (1-year old) looks longingly outside as the days turn warmer.
The 1st daffodils of the year bloom in the backyard.
Daffodils bloom in the backyard – Spring is just around the corner!

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One thought on “Understanding Figurative & Literal Language For Kids

  1. Good article, Ryan–English Language Learners have a really hard time with this, too, and some hilarious stories result! Try explaining: ” I am green with envy.” “She is too green [for that job]…” or “He turned green after too many beers,” “Give me some green” or “Green means GO!” or “Go green to protect the planet!”

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