With all the hype that neuroscientists and Silicon Valley engineers are getting these days, it’s easy to start thinking that your kiddo needs to be a star mathlete or a budding biologist to get ahead in tomorrow’s job market. Yes, it’s true that all children need a thorough grounding in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), in addition to reading and writing. After all, 20 years from now, the majority of job openings will likely be in STEM fields. And teachers, salespeople, and product designers alike will need to be STEM-savvy just to use the increasingly sophisticated tools of their trades, notes University of Missouri developmental psychologist David Geary, Ph.D.
Yet there’s another set of skills that experts say all kids will need to succeed, no matter what field they go into. “Almost every employer, in every occupation, prefers workers who know how to problem-solve, be creative, work collaboratively, and communicate well,” says Steven Paine, Ed.D., president of the educational advocacy group Partnership for 21st Century Skills.
Far from taking time away from your child’s current curriculum, these six skills can all be worked into other lessons — both in school and out. “It’s about how we teach, not what we teach. Kids need to learn deeper lessons by doing project-based work so that they don’t forget the facts after the test is over,” notes Paine.
Fortunately, you can hone those essential abilities through cool activities and games that make long car trips and rainy afternoons whiz by. Read on for inspired ideas that will ward off “I’m bored” blues — while boosting the skills that all 21st-century kids need:
Skill #1: Problem-Solving
To get ahead in a competitive world, your child will need to be able to think critically — to observe, analyze, and come up with smart solutions to complex dilemmas. It’s the quality kids need to write a persuasive ad campaign, say, or to fill out a new prescription for a senior on multiple medications.
“It means answering higher-level questions that require thought and exploration,” explains high school science teacher Jeff Charbonneau, of Zillah, WA, a 2013 Teacher of the Year. To get there, your child needs to learn to ask questions like “why?” and “what if?” and to think through all sides of an issue. Here are two ways you can encourage him:
Turn questions into projects. If your child asks “Why do I have so many freckles?” flip it around on him: “Why do you think you do?” (“Kids learn more from discovering answers on their own than having you explain things,” says Charbonneau.) Have your child come up with a couple of theories, then do some online research while you supervise. “Finally, ask him to explain what he’s discovered in his own words to help him process what he’s learned,” Charbonneau says.
Invent a superhero. If your child complains about being bored, point him toward the junk drawer. Suggest he sculpt his very own superhero from the stuff he finds, using modeling clay or glue to assemble it. To tap into his problem-solving prowess, tell him you have to be able to spot his hero’s special powers from the way he looks: For instance, Elastic Man might wear a rubber-band sash. That extra step will give your kid practice in mulling options and picking a strategy.
Skill #2: Playing Well With Others
The most successful companies know how to hire the best people and get them to work toward a common goal. That’s one reason teachers love classroom projects — they teach kids the value of teamwork. As they toil together, kids learn self-control (how not to melt down when classmates decide to take a different tack), diplomacy (how to urge on a slacker without name-calling), empathy (how to take a teammate’s feelings into account), and time-management (how to finish in the time frame). Leap ahead 20 years as your child slogs with colleagues to launch the first hack-proof credit card, and all those lessons come into play. Meanwhile, to raise a child who works well with others, your family could:
Host a bake-in. Cooking with siblings or playdate buddies not only sharpens math and reading skills but also boosts teamwork. After all, taking turns with the mixer (and sharing the beaters) is the first step toward learning cooperation. Cookies are always a hit, but older kids can get creative with ingredients and try whipping up an entire meal. If they have to toss their culinary masterpiece in the trash afterward, so be it — teaching kids to deal with failure is also important, and this is a low-stakes way to do it, says Charbonneau.
Shoot a flick. Making a movie helps kids channel their imaginations to create something fun while also negotiating who will do what. They can come up with the plot and script, act out the scenes themselves (or set them up with dolls or action figures), and delegate someone to snap pics with the smartphone. Then you can help them use the iMotion HD app (iTunes, free) or Lego Movie Maker (iTunes, free) to create cool time-lapse videos from the photos.
Skill #3: Smart Tech Reliance
Sure, you turn to your kid for help when you set up a new smartphone, but an ease with operating gadgets isn’t the same as understanding the best practices for using them. Digital natives must learn to judge the validity of the streams of information and to navigate social media.
It helps to consider digital media as you would food, says Michael Levine, Ph.D., of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a nonprofit that deals with educational media for kids. Empty calories (think Candy Crush) should be occasional treats, but allow healthy sites more freely. (One to try together: Code.org, which teaches kids easy ways to write the computer code that creates websites and apps.) Other ways to get them up to speed on all things media:
Become co-bloggers. Team up with your child to create a family blog (free at a site like Blogger.com), where you can post pics, news, and her latest artwork. Work with your kiddo to edit things down so relatives don’t get flooded with too much info — a valuable lesson for when she’s eventually writing PowerPoint reports. Bonus: Blogging also boosts writing chops.
Laugh at e-errors. Teach your kid to approach the web with a healthy dose of skepticism. Show her your iPhone’s silliest autocorrect errors and explain that computers can make similar mistakes when she looks to them for help with, say, spelling or translating. Or take an age-appropriate current event and see how the same story gets a different spin, depending on the site.
Skill #4: Thinking in 3-D
The ability to visualize objects — and the way they fit into a space — is what experts call spatial awareness. We use the skill every day when we merge our cars onto highways, for instance, or find our way around a new store.
Spatial awareness is second only to basic math as the building block for STEM learning because it teaches kids how to manipulate shapes in their head, says Vanderbilt University psychology professor David Lubinski, Ph.D. Boosting it pays off for all sorts of professionals, including architects, surgeons, and fashion designers. All need to imagine their end product as they work, whether it’s a new heart, a house, or a couture gown.
Cultivating the skill is especially helpful for girls, since the toys parents give boys — train sets, Lego kits — give them an edge in terms of thinking about how things fit together. Still, neither gender gets much training at school, says Lubinski. Thankfully, there are ways to get it in at home:
Encourage gaming. Video games tend to get a bad rap, but the ones that spur kids to make cities out of virtual blocks, like Minecraft, are great for building spatial skills. “It’s a blend of entertainment, engineering, creativity, and social media skills,” says Levine. “And it’s fun for older and younger siblings to play together.”
Cue the construction. A good way to teach the relationship between 3-D objects is by having kids decide whether a Lego piece or an ice-pop stick should go under or over another piece, or adjacent or perpendicular to it, when your child builds bridges or parking garages. Charbonneau asks his 7-year-old to build two towers and then make a zip line from string between them for an action figure to ride. “It’s a challenge to build a structure that can carry a heavy load,” he points out. To spur more elaborate buildings in the future, take a pic of your child’s creation when he’s finished.
Turn off the GPS
Maps are a one dimensional way to visualize the distance between two points, so keep an old-school one in the car, and you’ll be ready when your kid asks “Are we there yet?” Help him pinpoint where you’re headed and ask him to track your movement along the route, letting everyone know when you’re halfway there, three quarters of the way there, and about to arrive.
Skill #5: Communicating Clearly
Your child needs to say what he means — succinctly and diplomatically — whenever he explains ideas in class or argues for more privileges with you. And with higher-tech ways to communicate evolving, your grown-up kiddo will have to tap into this ability constantly. After all, he’ll be connected with coworkers and clients in real time almost nonstop — all around the world — and can’t afford to have anyone second-guess his intentions. How to help:
Follow the leader. Any activity that calls upon your child to listen to or give directions — even playing pretend — can help him become a great communicator. To give these skills a super-workout, try this: Slip on a blindfold and follow your child’s directions as you move through the room to pick up an object. Then switch, so your child gets the chance to practice both listening and describing the obstacles in the room.
Tell spellbinders. Story chains are a great way to spend a car ride or to keep the conversation going at mealtimes. Begin the story by creating a hero and setting. The person next to you adds more to the tale, and so on. Encourage everyone to contribute for a full 15 to 30 seconds. With practice, your kids will learn to really hear the storylines that come first, to layer their contributions onto those, and to tee up the next person with clever cliffhangers.
Skill #6: Out-of-The-Box Concepting
Creativity is the process of imagining what can be — the skill any boss requires, whether your adult kid is teaching a class full of fidgety second-graders or isolating the genes that trigger depression. Parents can encourage original thinking by getting kids to go through the same process engineers do, says Charbonneau: First they identify a problem or question, then brainstorm solutions, and then invent a plan and put it into action. These activities are great for doing just that:
Channel Rube Goldberg. Give your grade-schooler a ball of string and some tape and see if she can use her supplies to mastermind a way to turn on her bedroom light from down the hall. “It’s tricky for a child because she has to figure out how to lift the wall switch from outside the room,” says Charbonneau. Hint: Hooking the string over an unused picture nail, bunk-bed post, or door may do the trick. But don’t spill the beans! The idea is to get your child to come up with a plan without help.
Create rainbows everywhere. While you do the dishes — or drain pasta — near a sunny window, amaze your child with the rainbow you can make by pouring water through a strainer. Then encourage her to find other ways to refract light — outside with a garden hose or using a spray bottle and a flashlight. She can also look for household objects (jewelry, a crystal vase) that work as prisms.