Real Money in the Classroom

The January/February issue of Connect focuses on Kids and Money. To make room for other authors, we had to trim it down to one page, but here's the article in full:

Using Money in a Larger Study

One of the best and most comfortable ways for children to master new skills is through applying skills in practical settings. A very authentic study of money—recognizing coins, counting money, and making change—arose during a study of restaurants in my five- to eight-year olds’ classroom.

An Authentic Curriculum
The idea for creating a unified study of restaurants came out of observing the heightened interest in the fantasy area of our classroom when it included cooking, waiting on tables, and ringing up the cash register. Over time, this became a yearlong study for the primary group at Neighborhood Schoolhouse in Brattleboro, Vermont. It incorporated the arts, language, math, science, and physical education, as well as forged ties with families and the community. For more about the Kids’ Café, see
We made investigative trips into the field to survey restaurants in the area and learn from them how to make a successful restaurant (for one evening only, in our case). While visiting a diner, the owner told us about a formula she used to figure out how much to charge people for food. She needed to know that they would make enough money to pay the people who worked for them, pay the farmers who brought their eggs and vegetables to them, and pay for other ingredients they bought from the grocery stores and suppliers. We took our costs into consideration when setting the prices for the food we would serve.

At the Grocery
One of the first encounters with money was shopping at the local coop to get some of our ingredients. Some ingredients were donated, some were supplied by families’ gardens, but some had to be bought. We made estimates of the costs and then hit the store. We took several trips with the help of parent volunteers so that each student had a turn to shop as part of a small, mixed-age group. Younger students got to do the work of matching words on the shopping list to words on products (tamari, tomato sauce, spaghetti, canola oil). Older students weighed produce; such as heads of bok choy, bunches of carrots, and onions; and multiply the cost per pound. Students had done a lot of figuring beforehand to find out how much of each ingredient we’d need. Our sushi recipe, for instance, could make enough appetizer-sized portions (two pieces each) for about twenty people. We expected roughly 100 guests, so we knew we needed enough nori, sticky rice, pickled ginger, wasabi, tamari, and assorted fillings for five recipes. At the store, that meant counting the number of nori sheets in a package and eyeballing about five cups of rice to bag at the bulk section.

Calculations and Estimations
As each group filled its basket, two of the older students were charged with keeping a running tally of the estimated cost using a calculator. We knew we had to stay within a budget. If a certain item seemed to cost much more than the others, students debated with each other whether to modify the amount we would buy. They also learned to choose produce carefully and older students quite naturally the felt compelled to compare different brands and costs per unit. In the fall we had talked about the differences between organic and conventional gardening and students noticed the difference in price. Conversations about quality naturally arose as well. Conventional potatoes are less expensive in terms of money, but what is the cost to the health of the soil and the surrounding habitat? Even though it usually cost more money to buy organic goods, buying conventional foods cost more in terms of everyone’s health. We wanted to support farmers who worked the land in more sustainable ways.
Back at school we checked the receipts to make sure all of our purchases were accounted for and we worked together to see whether we got the correct change. Often this type of exercise is provided in math texts or programs: “A class of students buys groceries totaling $91.42. They give the cashier $100.00. How much change should they get back?” The difference here is that the reason we were talking about whether $91.42 from $100.00 equals $8.58 is because we were checking on something that really happened and had real meaning for us—not an imagined scenario that was just a bunch of words on paper. Creating an equation together also modeled for students that operations in math are actually connected to real situations. The symbols for addition and subtraction are representations of action. Later, this practice will help to establish that mathematical operations have purpose and are not separated from life. This was also the case when we were figuring out how to multiply recipes—in effect we were doing algebra. I need two cups of yogurt for one recipe. How many cups will I need if I’m tripling it?

Support for Practice and Independent Investigations
In the fantasy area, the cash register was a popular item. It got stocked with play dollar bills, but the coins were real. We also provided materials at the art table to do coin rubbings and use stamps of coins and dollars to cut out and color in. In math, I led discrete lessons of learning values of coins, counting coins, and making change; using workbook pages for practice. Many students chose to work on these independently during free time as well and enjoyed checking their work against an answer key. These exercises supported the learning students were doing with real applications of using money.
Another interaction with money came from the sale of tickets to attend the evening. In the first year we had priced each item separately and families worked with their child to figure out the total cost of the meal. That proved too large a challenge for children who were by that point in the evening really excited by all the activity and quite tired as well. In subsequent years we decided tickets were a better solution. For the first and last fifteen minutes of the school day, pairs of students would sell tickets to families. Through a group discussion, we had determined there should be different prices for adults, children, and “babies,” who got to come for free. We also decided that no family should have to pay more than the cost of four adult tickets. Ticket sellers had to tally up the individuals, multiply the cost in each category, and add them together. They collected and counted the cash and placed it in like piles in the cash box, or confirmed the information written on checks—written out to the school with the correct date and dollar amount—and wrote a receipt for the patrons and recorded on our list that they had paid. While I did not discuss this with the children for the sake of privacy, I made sure that each family could attend no matter what their financial contribution.

Dealing with Leftovers
As we approached the culminating event, we kept track of what we were spending and what was coming in. After the restaurant night, tired and proud and happy, the class counted up our revenue from ticket sales and also took into account how much food was leftover. There were some packaged ingredients that were not needed and thus were not opened (cans of tomato sauce or boxes of pasta, for instance) and prepared salad and entrees leftover. We established that we had indeed covered our costs through the sale of tickets. What to do with the excess? This prompted a conversation about profit and investment; putting the money back into the running of the business is how the diner owner had explained it to us, but next year’s restaurant would be its own business. So one of the students (the offspring of a board member) suggested giving the money to the school to add to its scholarship fund and this was heartily endorsed by all the students.
The kindergarten teacher suggested that a church in the area had a food shelf for people who are in need and cannot afford to buy enough food for their families. All the packaged leftovers were presented to that organization, while the Drop In Center, a shelter for homeless in the area, was given all the prepared leftovers. Again, through the help of volunteers, small groups of children brought the food to the shelters and met the organizers and some of the clients or recipients there. Much broader conversations about communities, distribution of wealth, and economies could also take place when considering, for instance, why are there people in our community who do not have enough food? Why do some companies put the extra money back into their own business and others give it away? But in the meantime, these students had a good basic understanding of the way our system currently works and how to use money for everyday exchanges. They also developed a broader understanding of their community by visiting diverse restaurants and talking to the people who ran them, visiting the local food coop and seeing local farmers’ goods, and visiting shelters and meeting the people who give and receive there.
The acquisition of skills, practice, and application of those skills were imbedded in a concrete experience that led to making bigger connections as they progressed through school.

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