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Money - What is it and how do we use it?

a unit for first grade






Introduction to Unit

Unit Outcomes



This unit was born out of the frustrations of a first-grade teacher - me.   We all know that  two tasks which first graders are expected to accomplish are 1) learning to tell time, and 2) learning to count money. I considered these two of the most difficult skills to teach first graders. Looking at the math workbooks which were provided was depressing. The authors of these workbooks seem to think that requiring a five-year-old to sit day after day circling pictures of "coins" that don’t look like  coins will teach children about money. I didn’t want to put them through that, and I didn’t want to go through it, either.

Thus, the Money Unit was born. Actually, it was designed by the students and me. Allowing the students to be involved in the actual designing of the unit was an empowering experience for the students; they were fully capable of handling this although they were first graders, 5 and 6 years old. I have found that when you allow students this power, demonstrating to them your trust as well as your high expectations, that they have never let me down. And I find that they are much more motivated and learn a great deal more.

First of all, I knew that using real coins would be much more effective; not only because it relates to real life, but because it is more meaningful and fun for the children. As we know from the wonderful teachings of John Dewey, and from the current research and publications in the field of critical pedagogy, making learning real and meaningful is extremely important for enabling students to be powerful decision-makers and critics who can transform society for the better through these attributes.

It has been my experience that the main concerns of classroom teachers with whom I have worked are l) student discipline, or classroom management, and 2) student motivation. Making the work of school meaningful to students is the key to student motivation and learning. All you have to do then is get out of their way. This unit is designed to accommodate the role of teacher as facilitator and the role of student as active learner, a creator of knowledge. I am a firm believer in the theories of William Glasser - students’ needs for power, freedom, belonging and fun must be met if any learning is to take place. These units are designed to meet these needs for the students.

Together, we decided to create a village - we didn’t imagine one or set one up in a corner - our entire classroom became the village. Students were told that they needed to divide themselves into groups, and each group was to decide upon a business which they would open in the village. They had no problems accomplishing this. Then, students had to create their store. They did this by rearranging the desks and tables in the classroom, utilizing bookcases and counters as well. After studying forms of advertising, the students created signs and advertised their businesses. Then every day they practiced selling and shopping in the village. Each student not only ran a business, but had a checking account which they had to budget and balance as well.

Many parents were excited and made valuable contributions to our unit. It was simply a lot of fun and a lot of work for the students, the participating parents and me. And all the students learned how to count money without a problem, and painlessly.

On the final day of the unit, the class celebrated by having real food in Daisy's Diner and real cookies and drinks at the Orange Julius. The local newspaper was informed and invited to visit, which they did. The first graders were thrilled to have an article and picture of their accomplishments in the local newspaper.


Unit Outcomes - Click on each Outcome Statement to see full description of each outcome, including supporting outcomes, enabling outcomes, activities and assessments for individuals and small groups.  

Outcome #1 - Perform basic arithmetic operations and estimation skills required to be an effective consumer and money manager. Keep record of cash flow.

Outcome #2 - Collaboratively negotiate a plan and create a class business or village shopping area, then produce and perform.

Outcome #3 - Create a marketing technique for your business by analyzing and evaluating persuasion and marketing techniques, then, applying your chosen technique(s) produce a marketing plan for your business.

Outcome #4 -  Using literature, magazine and newspaper articles, and interviews, find real life problems dealing with money management (the decision making aspect). Describe and justify the best possible solutions for these problems. Describe how this relates to your life within both personal and school contexts.

You probably noticed that certain words and phrases were in bold, red type. These are the verbs and tasks which are used in designing unit outcomes in order to keep the students challenged and  thinking on more critical levels - analyzing, negotiating, evaluating, justifying - these are important  skills which these students must acquire in order to become contributing, critical democratic citizens and which will enable them to make a better life for themselves and for society. These are not skills that should be reserved for high school. They are skills which must be learned early, and can be learned early, as my students demonstrated. Their success increased their confidence to be able to attempt greater challenges, and of course they were very proud of their accomplishments. Not only did they do a wonderful job acquiring these skills, they were proud of the "big words" added to their vocabulary.

You can see that this is much more challenging and motivational than rote learning with worksheets.  These activities required the students to learn the basic skills of addition, subtraction, estimation and counting money, and they learned them quickly and matter-of-factly because they had a reason to learn them and they were motivated. 

As a bonus, they gained many other important skills and increased their abilities in reading, writing, speaking, listening, collaborating, critiquing, creating and producing!  The knowledge they acquired was much more than basic math – they learned about marketing, economics, managing money, advertising, consumerism, business planning, and much more.  It doesn't need to be stated here that learning skills related to managing money is an extremely important skill, and one that is required for life -  Financial and Economic Literacy!




Children's Literature:   There are wonderful resources in children's literature for early elementary level children which deal with the concepts of financial literacy and counting and managing money. 

PMI -  “Edward de Bono is regarded by many as the leading authority in the world in the field of creative thinking and the direct teaching of thinking as a skill. He has written 62 books with translations into 37 languages and has been invited to lecture in 54 countries. He is the originator of lateral thinking which treats creativity as the behavior of information in a self-organizing information system - such as the neural networks in the brain. From such a consideration arise the deliberate and formal tools of lateral thinking, parallel thinking etc."

I highly recommend to classroom teachers his two books, Six Thinking Hats and Six Action Shoes.  They are packed with simple, but wonderful, activities such as PMI.

PMI stands for Plus/Minus/Just Interesting.  It is a decision-making tools which can also be used as a basis for writing persuasive essays or producing other persuasive media messages.  I create a form such as the one below, but on a full page of paper, or the students create one themselves.  When deciding which way to go in making a decision they list the points that are positive (Plus) about a decision, those that are negative (Minus), and elements about the decision which are neither a Plus or a Minus.  Whichever column has the most points is an indication of what they should decide.

For example, if the decision to be made was whether to spend $25 on a game or toy, possible points could be as follows:




Just Interesting


Have fun with the game.

Get it right now

Could share it with my siblings or play with parents

Could take it places with me easily because it is small.

I could develop skills to be used in school -  eye/hand coordination,  reading, visual literacy.



Wouldn’t have the money to buy other toys or games

 Would take a long time to save that much again.

 Have to do without purchases from the ice cream truck for two weeks.




It is a computer game.







From the results, it looks as though it would be a difficult decision, but there are more plusses than minuses.  Therefore, the student could make the decision to purchase the game. 

They could also use these points to create arguments to persuade their parents to purchase it for them or to let them purchase it.  In that case, they would select the three strongest points which would most likely impress their parents and develop their arguments around those points. 

This is also an excellent starting point for learning to write persuasive essays for standardized tests!


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