Imaginative play is a good way to introduce the concept of metaphor.

How to Explain What a Metaphor Is to a Child

by Shellie Braeuner

You’re enjoying a cup of coffee with a friend and laugh at an outrageous suggestion, slapping her arm and saying, “You’re a monster!” You suddenly see your preschooler give her a sidelong glance and step away. Welcome to the wonderful world of concrete thinking. As a toddler, he learned that words have power and identify what a person or object is. Now, as a preschooler, it is time for him to explore symbolic thinking through the wonderful world of metaphors.

Show your child the real dog. Ask your child, "What is it?" The child should recognize that this is a dog. Make the child to describe the dog. Talk about the dog and how it looks and feels.

Show your child the stuffed dog and ask her to name the object. Look at the toy with your child and ask her to describe it.

Hold the beanbag in your hand. Move it around as you make yipping noises, pretending the beanbag is a dog. Ask your child to identify the object. Some children, especially younger children who are firmly in the concrete thinking stage, will call it a beanbag. Children who are moving into the symbolic thinking stage will call it a dog. These children are usually already playing imaginary games.

Show the child that neither the toy nor the beanbag is really a dog, but both have characteristics that are similar to a dog.

Introduce the word “metaphor.” Explain that the word is used when two different things are compared, like a beanbag and a dog.

Items you will need

  • Real dog
  • Stuffed dog toy
  • Bean bag


  • Reinforce the word whenever possible. For example, when your child is cuddling up in your lap, you can ask “Are you my sweet baby?” Then go on to explain that this is a metaphor. He isn’t a baby, but a big boy, and cuddling reminds you of when he was a baby.


  • Most toddlers will not be able to grasp the concept of one thing being something else. Don't push her. Instead, just keep introducing the idea whenever it comes up in conversation. When she is ready, she will have her own "Aha!" moment and understand the concept of metaphor.

About the Author

Based in Nashville, Shellie Braeuner has been writing articles since 1986 on topics including child rearing, entertainment, politics and home improvement. Her work has appeared in "The Tennessean" and "Borderlines" as well as a book from Simon & Schuster. Braeuner holds a Master of Education in developmental counseling from Vanderbilt University.

Photo Credits

  • NA/ Images