Preparing kids with 21st century skills

Learn how to prepare your child for a knowledge-based, highly innovative career in a globalized world.

Learning Stages

By Clement Chau, Ph.D.

LeapFrog Learning Expert

As the children and media expert on the Learning Team, Clement primarily works on toys and digital products related to social studies, creativity, life skills and early childhood development. Before joining LeapFrog, he was an early education consultant, a media literacy researcher at the MIT Comparative Media Studies department, a researcher at Children’s Hospital Boston, and a researcher and lecturer at the Tufts University Developmental Technologies Research Group. Clement received his PhD from Tufts University's Eliot Pearson Department of Child Development and completed his dissertation on evaluating children's mobile apps.

Twenty-first-century skills are a hot topic in education today; some even call these skills the new building blocks for learning. Many educators, researchers and writers worldwide acknowledge that today’s children need more than the traditional 3 Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic) to prepare for future 21st century careers.

On the one hand, our economy is becoming more globalized every day. Children need to prepare academically for an increasingly competitive global landscape and at the same time learn to collaborate with others from all over the world. On the other hand, today’s knowledge-based economy requires citizens to be ever more creative and innovative, using technology and new media to solve problems with limited resources. So how do we prepare children for jobs of the future?

What are 21st century skills?

As contemporary educational debates go, there is no consensus on the complete set of skills that 21st century students need. Some viewpoints focus more on new media and new technologies, while others focus on entrepreneurial and collaboration skills. However, the various perspectives share a common thread: while maintaining a focus on traditional academics (literacy, mathematics, science and social studies), the general 21st century skills framework emphasizes life skills such as collaboration, problem solving and creativity as well as career skills such as innovation, technology and global awareness. Underlying these perspectives is the goal of preparing children for tomorrow’s knowledge-based, highly competitive, highly innovative careers in an increasingly complex and globalized world.

21st century skills in the schools

While 21st century skills may seem more appropriate for older children and college students, educators argue that it’s important to provide a good foundation at an early age by exposing young children to many of these concepts. For example, the Partnership for 21st Centry Skills (PS21) is working with state educational leaders to design and implement new curriculum standards from pre-K through grade 12 that integrate key 21st century skills into the classroom. On top of the traditional subjects, P21 adds the 4 Cs:

  • Collaboration
  • Creativity
  • Communication
  • Critical thinking

Fostering 21st century skills at home

Parents can look for opportunities to extend common home activities and hands-on projects to foster 21st century skills at home. Here are a few key ideas:

  • When children play together, offer them a collective set of play materials (such as a bin of crayons) rather than individual sets to encourage sharing, turn-taking and social skills.
  • Learn to say common phrases such as "Thank you" and "Hello" in multiple languages.
  • Ask your child to come up with one or two new rules to a familiar game. (Make sure the rules are still fair!)
  • Work on hands-on engineering projects together to solve common household problems. 
  • Encourage your child to participate in family decisions and problem solving, and then praise your child’s efforts to reason through different situations.