Helping Young Children Build 21st-Century Skills

The development of 21st-century skills begins early–we would argue as early as 18 months old. Which is why the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) advocates for the integration of 21st-century skills (anchored in the 4Cs: critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity) in early learning experiences for young children in order to build the skills they need not only when entering school, but also in life.

To support these efforts, P21 and its many partners released two resources: 21st Century Skills Early Learning Framework and 21st Century Learning For Early Childhood Guide. These documents are the culmination of years of intense, collaborative work between our member organizations and a prestigious international team of early learning experts.

The 21st Century Skills Early Learning Framework (ELF) was developed to encourage educators, providers of services to young children, administrators and policymakers to incorporate young learners as they develop strategies for full integration of 21st-century skills into their programs. It covers learning and innovation skills (4Cs); life and career skills; and information, media and technology skills.

The examples provided in the P21 ELF are designed to help build an understanding of how to support these skills in both formal and informal learning environments, including (most importantly) home. It follows a format similar to the other 21st-century skills maps developed for core academic skill areas (among them Math, World Languages, Art, Geography, Science, Social Studies, English, Project Management) for higher grade-levels (for convenience, we have also curated these on our Pinterest board).

In the 21st Century Learning for Early Childhood Guide, we cover four primary areas that support the integration of 21st century learning into the experiences of early childhood:

  1. How Children Learn 21st Century Skills
  2. Ten Strategies to Help Children Build 21st Century Skills
  3. Creating the Optimal 21st Century Learning Environment
  4. Importance of Family Engagement

Ten Strategies to Help Children Build 21st Century Skills

During the development process for the ELF, we identified the 10 essential strategies mentioned in the list above that help early learning educators apply what we know about how children learn (and brought them to life in the first of this P21 animated video series).

The goal was to support the delivery of optimal 21st-century early learning experiences in school and beyond. If adults and school-age children learn 24-7, so do the little ones. Here are the ten effective 21st-century experiences for early learners:

1. Child-Centered

Look for opportunities to focus on children’s interests. If children watch and show interest in a plane flying over them, take the opportunity to explore flight, make paper planes or soar around outside pretending to be planes. Children are more likely to engage in child-led activities and to concentrate on them than direct instruction.

2. Whole Child Focused

Provide opportunities to help children develop skills beyond early language, literacy and mathematics. Offer feedback and encouragement on a regular basis to reinforce skill development in essential skills, social-emotional development and foster self-esteem.

3. Play-Based

Encourage all types of play within the learning environment – dramatic, constructive, creative, physical and cooperative play.

4. Cooperative

Provide opportunities for children to play and interact with each other (e.g. dramatic play, puppet play, rule-based games, etc.). Design activities where children have opportunities to solve problems and innovate together.

5. Blended

Connect online play with hands-on play. Provide opportunities for children to explore and test skills online to create a more personalized experience allowing children to learn at their own pace. Learning is enhanced if the hands-on playful activities are connected to what is learned online.

6. Flexible

Be willing to change the plan. If the children are excited about a game they are playing, but it is time to read a story during circle time, build on what they are doing and ask them to talk about their game or find a story that connects to the game.

7. Differentiated

Change it up. When guiding children use different approaches and consider the learning styles of each child. Some children need to be more active while others may prefer a calmer pace. For example, in teaching children to count, have them sing out the numbers, provide materials they can count when playing or include counting as part of a story you read to them. This approach offers multiple options for children to absorb information.

8. Evaluated Through Formative Assessment

Observe children as they play. What skills have they developed and what are they just beginning to learn? Use this ongoing feedback to adjust activities and the learning environment to build on what they know and introduce new concepts and content.

9. Consistent

Create routines and expectations to help children feel secure, giving them the confidence and freedom to explore the environment. Consistency also supports the development of executive function skills, such as planning and organizing and self-regulation.

10. A Combination of Learning Domains

Offer learning experiences to help children develop the 4Cs while developing content knowledge. This intentional approach can be done while reading a story and discussing the characters or during a science experiment through the problem-solving experience.

P21 and its partners invite early learning educators, both public and private, to draw inspiration from our Early Learning Framework and Guide. We encourage educators to share our series of animated videos with parents and the public to help them develop a better understanding of why it’s so important to begin this work with children as young as 18 months. We also encourage all successful programs to apply for our Early Learning Exemplar program.

For more, see:

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David Ross

David Ross is a global education consultant and former CEO of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning.

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