Making Sense of Dollars and Cents
Teaching the money system to youngsters through games, literature, and real-world simulations
By Nicole Schon
It’s never too early to foster a love of math. What better way to learn than with something students have used themselves–money! Learning the money system offers children many opportunities for hands-on, interactive lessons.
Helping Learners Buy In
Part of the challenge in teaching our monetary system lies in the connection children are asked to make between an object (the coin) and the “value” of that object. Guiding learners to understand this abstract correlation takes time, patience, and a lot of practice. In my second grade classroom, I sought ways to actively engage students in thinking about money. This involved a variety of games, group activities, and, my personal favorite, literature.
Playing with Money
While most children at this age have already had some exposure to money, they are not truly aware that each different type of coin has a specific value. They do know that money buys them things they want, and so having the opportunity to play with real money immediately increases engagement across the board.
I introduce pennies first, since this value is the simplest to understand; one penny equals one cent. We then do a variety of activities to familiarize them with the values of every other coin. A simple game involves small groups; each playing with a spinner (mine are made from a laminated piece of construction paper, a brass fastener, and laminated card stock for the spinner). The spinner lands on random amounts of money, such as $0.75, $1.36, etc. The goal is to find as many ways to make the amount as possible. The game can be played either competitively, with each person finding his own methods, or collaboratively, with each group working together to beat the other teams in the class.
I used the book Alexander Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday as both an introduction to, and a formative assessment during the money unit. The book follows a young boy who doesn’t really understand the values of different coins as he spends and trades his money over the course of a week. On the first read through, most children do not understand the follies that young Alexander makes throughout the story. Once we’ve learned about the various values of coins, we read the book a second time, and kids groan when the main character makes his poor financial decisions.
I turn this into an assessment by having small groups work together to add and subtract each of Alexander’s financial transactions throughout the book. Those who do not fully understand how much each coin is worth do not end up at the correct sum, which is zero. This also lead to a graphing activity to chart how much money Alexander has at the end of each day.
Bringing in Real-World Experience
Nothing makes my class happier than the culminating activity of our unit on money: a classroom store. This activity serves as a summative assessment, allowing me to quickly see who has truly mastered the values of each different type of coin, and who needs more reinforcement and practice.
To set up the store, I had the class assist me in labeling each “inventory” item with a price I assigned. For the inventory, I use a variety of methods depending on the student population and funding. Sometimes a white elephant model was convenient, having class members bring in small trinkets and toys to sell. Other times, I bought things like pencils, stickers, erasers, and other small items at a 99 cent store. Another option is to only pretend to buy and sell items–the white elephant model works well with this. I also found that kindergarten teachers at my school were happy to provide a variety of play grocery items, dress up clothes, toys, and other items. I found that the children enjoyed the activity just as much whether or not the selling was real.
During the activity, every “shopper” is given a certain amount of money to spend, including two or more of each type of coin. At some point, each child also gets to act as cashier. To gain a better sense of each child’s understanding, I have the “customer” add up his or her expenses and the “cashier” double check the math. Once the amount is verified, the customer has to give the right amount, and the cashier has to give the right change. I sit next to the cashier and take notes on what each learner’s strengths and stretches are when it comes to using money.
The more experiences children have playing with and manipulating numbers early on, the stronger their number sense foundation. Below is a collection of resources geared to increase youngster’s understanding of the money system.
An interactive introduction to American currency first uses the internet to help kids discover how much each coin is worth and read facts about the penny. Then children are lead through a video. After each segment, they practice combining different coins and bills to create the same value amount.
After a short review of the dollar value of each type of coin, learners engage in writing word problems that involve calculating money. They then use manipulatives (either real or fake coins) to solve problems written by their classmates.
Second graders engage in a video to better understand the dollar amounts of coins and bills. They create specified dollar amounts in a variety of contexts, including various web-based games and a worksheet. The culminating activity calls for learners to write a letter to a friend that includes a money-story problem and solution.