Curriculum, Lesson Planning

21st Century Learning in Early Childhood

21st Century Learning in Early Childhood

What is 21st Century Learning?

The short version? The Partnership for 21st Century Learning (or P21) was the answer to major companies saying students were graduating college and were not ready for the work force. My husband who was a manager for a big-box retail store would come home complaining his associates would not be able to get projects done or would bicker and argue over the smallest details and never make actual progress. Basically, our students were graduating book smart but socially stunted. Companies like Intel, The Walt Disney Company, Ford Motors, and Pearson were looking for the “4 C’s” to be included in students’ education: communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.

Graphic from P21

While shown separately here to make referencing easier, P21 values all aspects in this framework, including the pools to help facilitate learning, equal in their importance. Everything is integrated into the overall outcome.

21st Century Learning in an Early Childhood Environment

The ironic thing about 21st Century Learning is most preschool and early childhood centers are already doing it. As professionals, we know better than anyone that a child learns best through play and interacting with peers. Not only that, we intentionally set up our day to have students work and learn together in groups. It is very common in the block center to see students using both woodblocks and toy animals. What usually happens is the students will use the blocks to create houses or shelters for the animals to live in. They then act out imaginative episodes with their peers. While this might seem like simple play to the average viewer, the trained early childhood professional knows it is much much more than that! Students are using their creativity and critical thinking skills to first build a shelter out of the blocks. Is it big enough? Is there a roof? They then collaborate with their peers to share their resources and build a structure together. The rest is all creativity and communication. Is it raining outside and our T-Rex needs to go to sleep? Maybe he’s hungry and needs a car to drive to the grocery store! The dramatic play here is endless. This is just one example, but learning opportunities like this happen continuously in all centers.

So if we’re already doing it, why isn’t it being recognized? Honestly, it’s because by nature teachers are modest creatures. We’re not explaining all of the learning happening during the day. We have to remember that the majority of the people we serve do not have degrees or training in any sort of education field. While it is something educators eat, breathe, and live, to the untrained eye this same dinosaur and blocks scenario just looks like simple play time. We also need to educate our parents and families on what learning looks like in early childhood because it’s not all finished worksheets, flashcards and writing samples. I always coach my teaching staff to brag about all of the learning taking place in their lesson plans. Those daily reports are their time to show off all of the wonderful experiences in their classroom so why not take credit for everything happening? If you come from a center with a prescribed lesson plan, what does your newsletter look like? What do your conferences look like? Make sure you’re giving yourself all of the credit you deserve!

Wording is everything!

Below is a sample lesson plan from my Pre-Kindergarten classroom. The theme was “Engi-nuity” where we were studying famous buildings and architecture from all over the world. At the end of our two weeks, each student selected a structure to recreate using whatever materials they thought would work best. I’ll first show you some examples of how I worded the lesson plans, and then show some final products at the end.

Sharing Our Ideas & Art History: During morning meeting we used our Promethean Board to look at the architectural design of the Eiffel Tower using Google Earth. We learned about the lead architect on the project, Steven Sauvestre, and why he designed the Tower using triangles.

Developing Our Imaginations, Music & Movement: As we worked during Project Time, we listened to traditional French music so we were totally immersed in the culture of the time period the Eiffel Tower was built. Our teacher would point out different instruments like the accordion so we could hear its timbre.

Building Our Skills, Computer & Technology: We researched famous structures all over the world while utilizing the program “World Explorer” on the computer. To properly navigate the program, we needed to use simple mouse skills like “drag and drop” and click on specific items when prompted. We will use the information we gained during this individual activity to help guide our selection of a structure to recreate.

Building Our Skills, Manners: We worked together as a class to build a 3D puzzle of the Eiffel Tower. While it tested our critical thinking skills, we also had to collaborate and communicate as a team to finish the puzzle correctly.

Sharing Our Ideas, Literature & Language: We worked in small groups to research information about our chosen structure. With help from our teacher, we worked on our handwriting and phonemic skills as we wrote three interesting facts on our structure information poster.

Becoming a P21 Exemplar

While the wording of your lesson plans is a great first step to P21, I must stress that like any accreditation, there is a process involved. If your center is interested in becoming accredited as a P21 Exemplar, I recommend taking their Preliminary Quiz to see if your center should apply. There are also great resources on STEM, professional development opportunities, and even a parents’ guide to 21st Century Learning and citizenship on their main website.

Wishing you well,



Disclaimer: Photos and information used with permission from Partnership for 21st Century Learning.