Shaping healthy and happy childhood through 21st-century education podcast header

Shaping healthy and happy childhood through 21st-century education [Podcast]

This week on The Preschool Podcast, we are excited to welcome Mariana Carazo, educator and founder of Developing Minds! Mariana wanted to give her daughter a different educational experience and went on to renovate her garage into a childcare center hosting 15 children between 3 and 9 years old! She is the thought leader behind rethinking education. She wanted something different for her daughter to honor her childhood and provide more play experiences.

What is 21st-century education?

When we think of a 21st-century education, we often think that we have to innovate and that is not necessarily true. Traditional education is absolutely outdated. Most skills children need to develop can be learned through play. A 21st-century skillset can be broken down into three categories:

  1. Foundational literacy (all traditional academics)
  2. Complex mental challenges (e.g. critical thinking, conversation)
  3. Character qualities (e.g. initiative, leadership, adaptability)

Having these skills will lead to lifelong learning and success long term. 21st-century education involves giving children all they need to fend for themselves as successful human beings. We spend too much time thinking ‘how can I give my child the best for their future’, instead of collaborating, problem-solving and critical thinking in education.

How to teach 21st-century skills to children

Play is the vehicle for promoting and teaching 21st-century skills. It is the child’s work. We tend to limit play in a classroom setting and this needs to change. Parents also play a big role. We think that children go to school to learn academics and then when they are looking for a job they are required to have a complex skillset not taught in school. It is vital for human development to give as much importance to academics as given to play to develop other skills.

Screen time is not good for your brain in the early years and competes with play. Children will always prefer technology over play. There will be a moment in their lives when technology will come in and play a role in their learning but in the early years, it is vital for play to be around in every moment.

21st-century skills are taught through time with adults as the facilitator. Some things need to be taught and others children will navigate along the way.

It is not about free play, it is about guided invitations to learn and play.”

The moment that the system understands that a child is a person that needs socio-emotional learning, we will be able to slow down our teaching practices and not worry as much about meeting certain standards.

High-level play happens after 60 minutes of uninterrupted play.”

As adults, we all have our world and are picking our own battles. We need to know where and when we are ready to start. When you start to feel uncomfortable about things, that is your starting point that you cannot go along with the system. Start by getting informed and then make decisions.

Podcast Transcript

Mariana CARAZO:

We are also thinking about [the] 21st century within our community because we want parents to understand and live the processes, not only to memorize what an adult is saying.


Mariana, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Thank you so much for having me here today! It’s my pleasure to be with you, sharing information regarding 21st century education.


We’re delighted to have you. And for all of our listeners out there, we have with us today Mariana Carazo. So she’s an educator and content developer and we’re going to talk to her today about 21st century education. What is it? What does it look like? It’s a new term for me and maybe for you, too. Before we do that, let’s start off learning a little bit about you, Mariana. Tell us a little bit about yourself.


Thank you, Ron. So, my name, as you mentioned, is Mariana Carazo. I’m originally from Costa Rica, but I currently live in Orlando, Florida. Life brought me here with my family. And I have more than 20 of experience in the educational world. I’ve been developing content for publishers, curriculum for schools. And it was two years ago, before COVID [19] hit, that I decided I wanted to give my daughter a different experience around education because I did not feel comfortable.

So, I actually got out of my comfort zone and I created the Learning Garage, which is my garage. I renovated the garage and I have a group of students I’m teaching. It started with eight. This year it’s 12, next year it’s going to be 15. And what I’m basically doing is rethinking education because I was not comfortable with what was out there. And that’s the reason I started the project. I wanted something different. I wanted to honor my daughter’s childhood, to give her more play experiences.

And that’s how my own process started. I started questioning myself, Why, around everything I did. And I actually decided I was going to homeschool her, which was hard because it had been, like, 14 years since I’d been in the classroom. And I am loving it because I am being able to make visible that education can look different, not only in the preschool years, but also in the elementary years. The group that I teach is multi-age, so I have children [ages] three through nine years old in the project. So, it’s very interesting. And that’s how I started within this 21st century education framework that I’m implementing.


Very cool. So, let’s start off with that question. In your mind, what is 21st century education?


So, Ron, that’s kind of tricky because when I think about 21st century education, people think that that we have to innovate and that we have to create new things around education. And that’s not necessarily true. When I talk about 21st century education, it comprehends skills that children need to develop in order to be successful for the current century.

So, where does it all start? We go back and we start thinking about the traditional model, traditional education. And if we think about it, it was born out of the Industrial Revolution many, many years ago, which is not longer the reality that our world faces today. The World Economic Forum – and I’m going to give you the link to add to this episode and to link it –actually has a really good study around 21st century education and skills. They went ahead and they grouped 21st century skills in three main categories. And they talk about how, if you have these three categories developed, children will be ready for future jobs.

So, the three main categories are foundational literacies, which comprehend all the academics: literacy, numeracy, scientific literacy, computer science, financial literacy, cultural and civic literacy. So, this first category comprehends all the academics. I’m not saying that 21st century skills, it’s not about academics. It has academics, but it also welcomes two different approaches that we often tend to forget, which are the second and third category.

The second category talks about the area in which we have complex challenges. So, we have mental complex challenges; we have critical thinking; we have creativity; we have communication; we have collaboration. And the third one has more character qualities, and it has curiosity, initiative, persistence and grit, adaptability, leadership, social and cultural awareness. And these three groups put together will give you a lifelong learning and will make your child succeed in life.

So, what this 21st century education look like to me? It looks like giving children all they need to fend for themselves as successful human beings. So, I believe that traditional education is no longer effective. It needs more: it needs more human interactions, more dialog, more engagement. And people tend to see academics as everything in education and it is very important. I’m a very academic person, but it is not all.

So, think that we spend way too much time thinking on, “How do I give my child the best for their future?” And we think about worksheets and workbooks and we think about all these things that they need to learn. And actually, if I ask you to close your eyes and think about school, you might be thinking about language and reading and writing and math. And that’s part of school. But school and 21st century education also looks like collaborating among students and developing creativity to a higher extent and problem solving and critical thinking. And our system is only requiring children to learn for memorization and not necessarily understanding.

So, it’s a whole approach. And what I said before, this is not new, it’s just common sense. And we welcome things that are important to be as important as academics. In my own project and something that I am promoting, I see play as the vehicle of promoting and teaching 21st century skills within children. Play is the child’s work. And if you think about it, all these competencies and character qualities will be developed through high-level play experiences. And we tend to limit play to recess. And after first grade, play is almost inexistent. So, that’s how 21st century skills in education looks like to me.


Yeah, that’s super interesting. And I was kind of in that same boat of what you said, which I kind of thought you were going to go down the road of, like, technology and innovation or something like that. But this makes so much sense. And almost by definition, it’s so logical to me because if I think about education, I think of what you said about a lot of those foundational literacies pieces around, like, the more academic parts.

But, if I think about really successful people in their careers or profession or what have you, it’s those other two things: it’s the character qualities and being able to manage complex challenges. So, it makes so much sense that this is a great model and that there is this current disconnect between the education experience and what happens in real life, let’s say. And it is also curious to me that you used the word “future jobs”, because we don’t even know what the jobs are going to be in in 20 years or 30 years, right?


Correct. And that’s the main point, Ron, because we are part of this whole vision. Because we tend to just throw the ball to educators and the system. But we as parents, we also play a big role in this because we think that children go to school to learn all these academics and that’s what’s most important. But then when they are looking for a job later on in life, they’re required to have all of these sets of skills which they never even touched or saw in their school years.

So, it is vital for human development – not only for it for children, for human development –to give importance to academic areas as the rest of these skills to be developed. Play is vital. And I know you mentioned technology, and that’s why I am actually a big advocate of limiting screen time because I think that screen time research proves that it’s not good for your brain in early years. And it also competes with play. And children will always prefer technology versus play. And there’s a time for everything. There will be a moment in their lives where technology will come in and will play a major role within their learning. But in the early years, it is vital for play to be around in every single moment.


Yeah, and the other thing that struck me as you were talking about a lot of this is that it aligns with other conversations we’ve had on the Preschool Podcast where really what we would love to see is taking more elements of early-childhood education around social-emotional learning and play and bringing that up into the K-12 and school-age programs, which is a lot of what this is, right?


Correct. And something sad, Ron, is that creativity goes far from just coloring or painting with paint. Or critical thinking goes far beyond building a puzzle. These 21st century skills are taught through time. They are modeled; they are discussed. The adult in the 21st century model is a facilitator. It’s not longer in charge. And I do believe there are things that need to be taught and the instructor teacher needs to teach them. But there are things that the child will discover and navigate along the way.

So, it is very important to know that if we adopt 21st century skills, it’s not just saying, “Hey, we color and paint here, so we’re developing creativity.” Or, “We build with Legos. So, there it is, creativity and problem solving while they build.” It’s far beyond that. Schools, preschools should have a curriculum based on 21st century educations. Teachers need to have training. They need to know how it looks like. And they also need to have less weight on their shoulders around academics. And by this I’m not saying that it should not be important – it is very important. It has to be done, but it can be done through play, also meeting all these 21st century skills.


Yeah, and that makes so much sense. And let’s dive into that a little bit more, in terms of the practicalities. So, how might an educator apply these concepts, these development areas in the classroom and create classrooms that are set up for those learning opportunities?


So, in the preschool and kindergarten years, it’s a little bit easier because we still see play happening. Later on, it becomes even more challenging. But it’s not, as I mentioned, something that you just do when you say, “Hey, go and have free play.” It’s not about free play. It’s about guided invitations to learn, to build, to create. We want children to be creative thinkers. We want strategies.

There is a whole new approach around questioning and diving into high-level questioning and learning. It’s not about just memorizing and reciting, it’s understanding what it really means. And the moment that the system understands that the child is a person that needs social-emotional learning, that meets 21st century education and that needs, within 21st century education, all these three categories, we will be able to slow down our teaching and our practices.

Because sometimes we’re worrying too much about meeting the standards, adding everything into our curriculum, adding a lot of content into our lesson planning, thinking that the more we add, the more the children will learn. And that’s not necessarily true. We need to have open-ended play experiences, process art, uninterrupted play sessions for more than 60 minutes.

Research also proves that high-level play happens after 60 minutes. And it’s very rare to see children playing uninterrupted for that amount of time because usually there’s something else more important than playing that needs to happen, also known as math, reading or writing. And that should not be seen that way. We need to make a balance. Yes, math is required; reading is required; writing is required. I love academics. If you actually hop into my Instagram, you’ll be noticing a lot of learning going on and happening. But it will never be seen as something that competes with play.

So, all these early-childhood learning spaces should have an opportunity for children to play with loose parts. I referred to loose parts, and I actually have a webinar with you with HiMama talking about loose parts. I see loose parts as the toys for the 21st century because we create, we build things from scratch. We have curiosity, initiative persistence. And the places where 21st century skills happens the most is in all these open-ended play, building, pretend, outdoor play experiences that children are being limited in the traditional educational model.


Yeah, that’s so wonderful. And if I’m an educator, I’ve had some success applying this in my environments or classrooms, how can I help parents at home play a more integral role? As you said, that’s also really important.


It is very important, it goes hand-by-hand. And first of all, I want to say something regarding teachers and parents: We all have a different reality. We all have our own world and we’re all picking our own battles. So, what can be easy for me might not be easy for you. So, we all need to know where and when we are ready to start.

I always say that when you start feeling uncomfortable about things that are bothering you – like, it happened to me with my daughter – that’s your starting point because you cannot longer go with the system. So, my first thing here is – and that’s actually what I promote with my social media, as well – is get informed. And then you make decisions about what you already know. The problem is people not being informed.

So, as an educator, what can you do with families? You can teach them around loose parts. You can teach them about how 21st century skills looks like in child development. How does child development actually look like? We give so much emphasis on these letters and these numbers. But how does math look like for a three-year-old? How does literacy look like for a four-year-old? How does communication look like for a four- and five-year-old? How can you achieve collaboration? How can you actually promote independent play at home? And that’s a complete, full episode on independent play at home.

But parents – and not only parents, technology is taking us to a place in which children are forgetting how to play. And this is very sad. And that’s my main mission here, is to rescue childhoods. Because I think that we as educators play a huge role, but parents also need to be on-board. And the more we inform educators, the more they will learn. And the more educators inform parents, the more involved they will be. But again, we are also thinking about [the] 21st century within our community because we want parents to understand and live the processes, not only to memorize what an adult is saying.


Yeah, and I think sometimes it’s easy to take for granted, as an educator, what you know about children’s development. So, a message to all the early-childhood educators out there: Don’t forget, you’re the experts. You’re the professionals who know about child development and the things a lot of parents out there don’t know. For example, the impact of excessive use of technology at home. And so you all can be the ones educating parents and families about that. And I think that’s a very important message from Mariana, as well.

Before we wrap up, Mariana, a couple final questions. In terms of learning and development, do you have any recommendations for our audience for content they can check out for their own development?


Yes. As I mentioned before, the 21st century skills study done by the World Economic Forum is very important and a quick read and is a fix for both parents and educators. I also have a free webinar on my website, that will also be linked here, around 21st century skills. And it has a major starting point that I did not mention here today. But I just want you to think something: We are 22 years into the 21st century and still looking for change. Let’s not be late because we are already late. And this webinar talks about that and how you can… it’s a call to action.

We also have… I’ve been rethinking all academic areas. So, I have a lot of resources for reading and for writing in my website that you can check out. Because I also believe that every single academic area should be re-thinked here in the process because we want children to stop filling out worksheets and stop reciting and stop memorizing. And we want them to understand.

So, I think that it’s a moment in which we as educators need to ask ourselves why and re-think all practices. And nowadays we have social media around us and amazing professionals that are doing a great job regarding effective teaching practices. So, sometimes we just need to continue learning. So yes, those resources will help you. So, everything on my website, that page link for the 21st century skill development on the World Economic Forum is great.

And I think that you don’t need to see this as something new. I think we are going back to basics here. We are going back, we’re slowing down. It’s time to slow down instead of thinking “How can technology solve my world?” It’s about going back to the basics. Have children play, feel, enjoy time. As adults, disconnect to connect because that’s what will make 21st century education shine.

Something else that I advocate for is the more you inform, the more you share information that you see on social media, the more people will be informed. Something else that you mentioned around technology, Ron, and it is very important. It’s a part of this framework that the World Economic Forum made. I think that also mental health is a vital component of 21st century education. Children need to know how to take care of their brain and how limiting screen time, eating healthy, resting, exercising will affect their life.

So, with that said, I think that we do have the information. It is hard to change because it’s part of what we’ve been used to. But it’s about time. So, I promise – and I think that I discovered this myself – it gets easier to slow down and rethink our practices and stop giving importance to lesson plans and documents over what really matters, which is the effective teaching and instruction in the classroom. So, the whole mentality has to shift to actually be successful and create successful tools for students for the current century.


100%. And Mariana, where can people go for your website? What’s the address?




Wonderful, okay. You can find Mariana there. Thank you so, so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today. Certainly the 21st century education and what that means resonated a lot with me and I’m sure it did with our audience as well!


Thank you, Ron, for having me here!

Christie White

Christie is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at HiMama. She is passionate about children's development, parenting, and supporting the child care industry. She has been working to support child care centers with their events and marketing for almost a decade. In her personal life, Christie lives in Stouffville, ON with her husband Kyle and dog Tucker. She enjoys going for walks, baking, cooking, and watching reality tv!