Each year I teach the concept of money to students and it ends up being one of my classes favorite units of the year. We spend time learning the value of coins, counting spare change and creating our own “piggy banks” using pink paper that we then fill with photocopied coins and count the total. Those lessons are are challenging and all well and good, but I really love when we spend a month creating our own classroom economy to bring the concept of money to life.
A unit on money is math, but the study of economics is an experiential exercise in critical thinking and social science.
For the past two years I’ve devoted two afternoons a week over the course of a month to creating a classroom market place that looks more like a farmer’s market than a traditional lesson. Students are put in small groups of three or four and given a box with a lid (from our copy paper) to be their storefront, lots of materials to create products to be sold and $100 in cash (play money with the kids faces on $1, $5 and $10 bills) to belong to the store for making change.
Additionally, each student gets their personal $50 in cash to spend in the classroom stores. Each week we opened our stores for a half hour to sell to each other and guest shoppers. During our unit the kids counted their own personal money and their store’s money at least sixteen times, practiced counting strategies like making tens, made change for shoppers and divided profits once a week.
To get our stores going the students received an assortment of materials to be made into products for their stores and an hour to make things and price them. I was doing this project with first grade students so I chose not to make them “pay” for the materials out of their store’s money. Some weeks their materials were all the same while others I gave each group different items and they were encouraged to barter and trade.
On Friday afternoons we “opened” our stores for a half hour. I invited special guests like the students parents, staff from the school or the second grade students to come join in and go shopping. Anyone who came to visit received an envelope with $50 to spend. Before we opened we gathered in a large circle and each store did an advertisement for one to two things they were selling. They had to share what the item was, how much it cost and how many were available. When the half hour was up and the stores closed, each group had to pack up, count their money, subtract $100 that needed to remain in the store’s envelope, record their profits in their store “ledgers” and divide the profits amongst the members of the group.
The exciting part of this unit for me was watching the kids make discoveries about how an economy works. To have a successful store, students had to work together, be creative and be strategic about pricing. Each year I had at least one student who wanted to have the most money, and so he or she would not spend any money and worked hard to sell a lot of items. Because it’s an economy, the system doesn’t work unless money is circulating. One student was so determined to have the most money that the economy began to slow down in the classroom and prices were being forced down because the students who were spending did not have much money. We discussed finding a solution as a class and the kids voted for having a $30 stimulus. Prices adjusted accordingly and the economy was healthy again.