Play dough
Fake money teaches students real-life lessons

As Jen Van Haften’s preschool and kindergarten students shuffle into her room after their music lesson, she asks how class went. “I got a stamp!” one student proudly announces as he flashes Van Haften his hand. “That means I get a buck!”

“That’s right,” says Van Haften, agreeing to his mercenary deal. What sounds strange to an outsider has become a blockbuster program at King’s Christian Academy in Minneapolis, where Van Haften has introduced ele:Vate (Economic Literacy Education: Vital Assets for Transformation and Empowerment).

In 2004, Van Haften won a three-year, $30,000 grant from the National Association of Street Schools (a network of Christian schools targeting at-risk youth) to become one of six schools in the country to test-run the program, which incorporates economic literacy into existing curriculum for urban kids.

When Van Haften heard about ele:Vate, her first thought was similar to what she expected her students to think: “Economics? How boring. I don’t want to do it.” But the more Van Haften learned about the program, the more she knew it was perfect for her school.

“I realized that kids really need to know this stuff,” says Van Haften. “Economics is a party of everything, even our day-to-day choices.” Half of KCA’s students are on scholarship or reduced tuition, and ele:Vate aims to give them the economic education that more affluent students tend to get in everyday life.

The 70-student school has created a mini-economy within its walls: students earn “King bucks” for things like showing up on time, not talking during nap time, and completing assignments. That money goes into a cyber bank account that students can access to “buy” school supplies, donate to charity (every student must give 10 percent of their “earnings” to the school’s Mission Mexico cause), and save up for the end-of-the-year field trip, which costs $100 King bucks per student. On the flip side, students must pay out King bucks for poor behavior or tardiness. Right from the start, the response from students was positive.

“The kids love this program because it’s real-world stuff,” says Van Haften. “When we teach things like fractions, they say, ‘I will never need fractions in real life.’ But with these lessons, they know it’s information they will use.”

In addition to the school-wide lessons, every grade incorporates ele:Vate into its curriculum a little differently. Van Haften’s younger students use Play-Doh to learn the difference between goods and services, while the 4th- and 5th-graders use their hard-earned King bucks to play the stock market or invest in CDs.

But ele:Vate isn’t just about making money; students also learn the hard way that certain aspects of economics are out of their control. One class returned from lunch to find that a tsunami had hit the classroom: desks were overturned, books were strewn about, and silly string coated the room.

“Depending on what happened to their desks, students had to pay King bucks to have them fixed, and it was a great chance to introduce the concept of insurance,” explains Van Haften. “We had great conversations, and the class really bonded to clean up and pay for the repairs.”

Parents have enjoyed some surprising dividends from the program as well. “Some parents I’ve talked to are learning from their kids about how to buy stock,” says Van Haften. “It’s not often you learn something like that from a 10-year-old.” At another ele:Vate partner school, the parents were so impressed with the results that they asked the school to teach an adult version. “The parents saw that their kids weren’t bouncing checks like they were, and they wanted to know how to do it, so the teacher agreed to teach the parents,” says Van Haften.

Back in her classroom, Van Haften settles her students down for a nap while they discuss the stamps they earned in music class. “Sometimes we make good choices and sometimes we make bad choices,” Van Haften explains. “What happens when we make a bad choice and misbehave?”

The proud King-buck-earning student has an instant response. “I don’t make bad choices!”

Monica Wright is Minnesota Parent’s staff writer.


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