Read an Excerpt
Money as a Life Skill
Magic Plastic Cards and Little Silver Coins
The first things little children learn about money are (a) it can get them things they want; and (b) their parents always seem to have it. In fact, if we're not careful, money can take on a magical quality to them. When Rhett was three, we were out together one day, and he saw a toy he wanted. Naturally he asked me to buy it for him.
I told him I didn't have any money with me -- which was true. Like any other parent, I'm capable of saying the first thing that comes into my head in certain moments of weakness, but I never lie about money. Too much missionary zeal, I guess.
"Oh, don't worry, Mommy," he said. "You can just use that magic plastic card you carry in your purse."
That taught me a few things -- not the least of which was the resourcefulness of a small child bent on getting what he wants. It also brought home to me the necessity of making sure that even our little ones begin learning the value of money.
Little children's first natural instincts are for survival. The first concept they're going to understand -- the first one they need to understand -- is getting; and after that comes having. When it comes to money, they're naturally going to understand spending first, earning second. A true understanding of saving and sharing doesn't come till later. But it's still important that parents keep presenting all four aspects of dealing with money together, as a natural part of the process.
Magic card or no, it's the tangibility of money that makes it such an effective early tool in teaching children how the world is structured. It's tangible and it's visible: they see it every day, they see it being used, and they quickly grasp the general concept of how it's used. (As a matter of fact, Rhett was right and I was wrong in that toy store -- I did have money in the form of my little plastic card. I explained to him about the card: it didn't mean I got things for free or by magic; it was a promise to pay the money at the end of the month. I also had to simply tell him no, I wasn't going to buy him that toy, on that day.)
Money is one of the first experiences a child has with abstract, symbolic concepts. Speech is the first, and that may well be the hardest intellectual challenge a human being faces -- understanding that these strange sounds big people make actually represent things, and actions, and even feelings you can't see like hunger or sleepiness, happiness or sadness.
If a child can work that one out, she can work out that silver coins and green pieces of paper -- if they're the right ones -- can be exchanged for things she really wants, like toys and candy.
If you ask your children what Mommy and Daddy do with money, and they can answer, "They go into the store and buy things with it," then they have grasped the basic concept of using money as a medium of exchange.
The truth is, I can't know exactly what Rhett was thinking or what magic he imagined in that little card. But he did know you had to do something -- you couldn't just walk into the store and take the toy away with you.
Susan Walker, who operates a day care center in Kingston, New York, and who has provided this book with some wonderful insights on working with preschoolers, has seen her two-year-old, Patrick, learn his first lessons about money at a local game arcade. "He knows Mommy turns in the green pieces of paper for coins, and that you can put coins into slots to make the games work," she says. "In fact, that's why I had to get the seat belts in my ear fixed. Patrick put a quarter in the slot of the seat belt fastener."
Show and Tell
The first lessons to teach your child are built around games that encourage a tangible relationship to money. They are money identification games, stacking and counting games, change-making games, measuring games.
For all of these games, use real money, not play money. Toddlers have been known to swallow coins. Supervise your children closely and take the money away when you are finished playing.
Money Identification Games
These are the basic games, the first ones you'll teach (although variations on money bingo can make it a favorite for a few years, anyway). Very little children won't fully understand concepts of value at first, but they can understand games of "how much." They must be able to see, and be able to identify, the physical substance of money before they can do anything with it.
The Coin Identification Game
Goal: To tell the difference between one coin and another.
You'll need: Four jars, each of them marked with all the names of the coin that jar will represent. The penny jar will be labeled "Penny, 1¢, One Cent"; the nickel jar "Nickel, 5¢, Five Cents"; the dime jar "Dime, 10¢, Ten Cents"; the quarter jar "Quarter, 25¢, Twenty-five Cents." Put a few coins of the right denomination in each jar.
You'll also need a dish and a bunch of coins of different denominations.
Rules: First, pick up a coin from the dish, tell the child what it is ("penny," "nickel," and so on), and have the child repeat the name of the coin and put it in the right jar. Next, you can add another challenge by naming the coin and asking the child to give the other name for it ("quarter," "twenty-five cents").
When he has mastered that round, tell him the name of the coin and have him find it in the dish and put it in the right jar.
What it teaches: Recognizing different coins by appearance, identifying them by name. Since the jars are picked up and put away at the end of each game session, it also teaches neatness and responsibility for belongings. And the sorting of money into jars for fun gives the child an early positive feeling about the jars he'll be using later on for saving.
Goal: To fill up a "bingo card"; if you're playing with more than one child, to be the first to fill up a bingo card.
You'll need: "Bingo cards" that you make up yourself, on pieces of cardboard, so they can be reused. Each card has twenty-five circles on it, five rows of five circles. You make the circles by tracing around coins -- pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters -- and then writing the value of each coin in the center of the circle. Write it in numerals -- 25¢, 5¢, and so forth. Make different cards, with the circles in different orders, with different numbers of each coin -- three nickels and eight quarters on one, five nickels and six quarters on the next, and so on.
You'll need a pile of coins for each child.
Rules: You hold up a coin and say its name, not its value (penny, nickel, dime, or quarter). Each child has to fill all the circles on his or her card with a coin in the right denomination. After four rounds, the one who has filled the most spaces wins. If all the children fill up their whole cards, everyone wins.
What it teaches: In addition to coin identification, this is the very beginning of another important life lesson. Exchange of money for goods is a life skill that is always performed under pressure. When you buy something, you have to come up with at least the right amount of money and give it to someone who is judging your ability to handle this task. There's time pressure, too -- this other person expects you to do it promptly. If you give more than the right amount of money, you'll get change back, and you have to count that quickly and make sure it's right. These are skills that can be daunting to children, and the play pressure of money bingo can help get them used to it.
Further variations: Have the children make their own game cards, by doing soft pencil or crayon rubbings of coins. This makes another game -- the rubbings themselves -- and also a fun new complication to the bingo game itself. The children then have to identify the coin you've called out by the image on the rubbing -- and it can be either heads or tails. For older preschoolers and younger school-age kids, this can make the game even more like real bingo, if they have to identify the side of the coin and the color of the rubbing. For example: "Orange quarter -- tails!"
Counting, Stacking, and Change-Making Games
Counting and stacking moves the child along into the conceptual side of money -- beginning to relate it to the idea of value -- first in relation to itself and then in relation to things. Change making extends this concept and adds a little more challenging arithmetic.
Once you start on these conceptual games, you are beginning to teach lessons of fair exchange, which is the underpinning of any system of values.
What's It Worth?
Goal: Find out how many smaller-denomination coins go into a larger-denomination coin or a dollar bill.
You'll need: Coins and bills.
Rules: Put down a penny. Explain that it's worth one cent. Put down a nickel. Explain that it's worth five cents, and that you can call it either by its value (five cents) or it's name (a nickel). Have your child count out enough pennies to make one nickel. Do the same with dimes (ten pennies, two nickels) and so on, up to a dollar.
What it teaches: In addition to counting skills, it helps the child understand the symbolic value of money -- that this one coin -- a quarter, for example -- is worth the same amount as twenty-five pennies.
Further variations: This lesson can be reinforced by bringing your child to the store with you and letting him buy an item with twenty-five pennies, and then the next day letting him buy the same item with a quarter.
The Price Tag Game: 1
Goal: Match the item to its price.
You'll need: Canned or packaged goods with price tags on them; piles of coins of different denominations.
Rules: The child reads the price on the item -- with your help, if necessary. Then she takes coins from the piles and stacks them next to the item until she has matched the amount. Then the money goes back into the piles. You'll start with simple items -- something costing a quarter will only need one coin; something costing twelve cents will need a minimum of three; but the counting is still pretty simple. Gradually you can work up to more expensive items that will further challenge the child's counting abilities.
What it teaches: The relationship of money to goods.
Further variations: Change the items, or add new items, each time you play the game. Use both household items (a bar of soap) and "kid items" (stickers). This begins to get the kids noticing the relative value of things. If they mention it ("Daddy, look, a bar of soap costs the same as two candy bars!"), you can talk about what a bar of soap does and how long it lasts, compared to two candy bars.
The Price Tag Game: 2
Goal: "Buy" different items using a finite amount of money.
You'll need: The same as for price tag 1.
Rules: The child will stack the appropriate number of coins next to an item, just as in the previous game. This time, though, after he has correctly matched the price of one item, he leaves the item and the stack of coins on the table and goes on to another item.
What it teaches: The notion of a finite supply of money -- the more you spend, the less you have.
Further variations: You can start with a group of objects and a certain amount of money that adds up to less than the total value of the objects. Make sure the child knows this, so he won't be upset when he runs out. When there's not enough money left, that's the end of a round, and he can start again, this time with a different "purchasing plan."
The Change-Making Game
Goal: Playing store -- selling different items, taking the customer's money, and making change.
You'll need: A "cash register" of a shallow box each for pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and dollar bills, money for each box, and items to sell in the "store."
Rules: The child gets to set up her own store, with whatever items from around the house she wants to sell. You and she can decide appropriate prices for the items and put price tags on them.
She arranges the change and the dollar bills in the cash register, from left to right in descending order of value.
You come in as the customer, buy something, and bring it up to the "store keeper." Pay for it with more than the value of the item -- a dollar bill or a five-dollar bill, whatever will make it necessary for the storekeeper to give change. She "rings up" the item, figures out your correct change, and gives it to you.
Take turns being customer and storekeeper. When the child is the customer, she must make sure you give her the correct change.
After the game is finished, she must put all the change back in the change jars (see "The Coin Identification Game," page 39).
What it teaches: Giving and receiving correct change. This is also a good groundwork for teaching fairness and honesty. You can talk about what to do if the storekeeper gives you too much change (always correct the mistake). When this lesson is attached to the child's pride in counting right and figuring the change right, the moral lesson is strengthened. Make sure, though, that the child understands the moral consequences -- taking money that doesn't belong to you is stealing; the cashier might have to pay for it out of his pocket, or it might even cost him his job.
Further variations: Start buying more than one thing, so that the child has to total up a sum before making the correct change. Have an item marked "three for a dollar" and only buy one -- you can explain to the child why the storekeeper would round the price up to thirty-four cents.
Buy too much -- more than the money you give the storekeeper will cover. When she points this out to you, the two of you can figure what you would have to put back in order to be able to afford the purchase.
Goal: The goals here combine counting and measuring with getting things done around the house.
You'll need: Whatever's at hand in the kitchen -- food, bowls, measuring cups and spoons.
Rules: The simplest games here are Sesame Street-type counting games: How many hamburger patties are we making? How many forks do we put on the table?
For older children, these become recipe games -- actually measuring and combining ingredients to make pancakes or a salad.
What it teaches: Counting games are always good to teach familiarity with numbers and the relationship of numbers to each other and to real life: for example, the number of forks on the table is the same as the number of people in the family! When combined with chores like setting the table, they become part of the child's developing sense of responsibility as a Citizen of the Household.
Recipe games teach measurements -- a whole new concept of counting and relating different amounts and values to each other. At the same time, following a simple recipe and making something that can be eaten develops a child's sense of empowerment and the sense that he can make a contribution to society.
Deferred Gratificatien Games
Very little children are not big on deferred gratification, but you have to start teaching it young. Hiding and finding games are a good way to start teaching this concept -- hiding a present somewhere in the living room, giving clues as to where it is, makes not actually getting it right away part of the fun. Alter that, you can try offering your toddler a choice that will begin to show the advantages of deferred gratification: "Would you rather have one cookie now or two cookies after you've finished playing outside for an hour?" Make sure the time of deferral is very short at first.
It is, however, not a good idea to play these games with money. You don't want to encourage the idea of money as something to be hidden and searched for. Remember the classic story of Soupy Sales telling his kid TV audience to go into Mommy and Daddy's room, find all the little pieces of green paper, and send them to Soupy? Soupy was kidding, but he got into trouble for it anyway, and it's best that you also try not to encourage the practice.
Copyright © 1995 by Neale S. Godfrey