Kids are built for playing. It’s the one thing all children have in common across nations, cultures, and genders. If left to their own devices, a child can make a game of nearly anything in any situation. And parents can use that to their advantage to teach children about financial independence and money concepts like saving, budgeting, and using bank accounts.
A 2018 study published in the Journal of Family Issues (via a Science Daily news release) found that kids who used experiential learning throughout their childhoods are far more confident in their money management skills as adults. Experiential learning simply means to learn by doing. Play is one form of experiential learning.
And there are many ways you can use play to teach your kids about money.
How to Use Play to Teach Your Kids About Money
Trying to figure out how to use play to teach your kids about money can be overwhelming. There are two primary categories of play you can use: structured play and unstructured play. Which you choose depends on the types of lessons you want to impart and what your kid is currently receptive to. But in general, it’s best to start intentionally with structured play.
Structured play is the easiest way to teach while playing. Structured play has a specific outcome or a goal. Your goal is to teach your child about money. So at the end of the play, your child should understand more about money than at the beginning of the play.
There are usually rules to the play. Board and video games, books, and videos are forms of structured play and are the easiest to use for teaching.
But if you set up an environment to encourage a particular outcome while playing, that’s also structured play.
For instance, you can give your kids a play kitchen and cash register with some play money in it. While playing, a child may set up a restaurant by playing with the cash register and faux or imaginary food. This type of creative structured play lets your child practice using money and business concepts.
Guided play is another form of structured play. It can be child-led free play during which you simply follow your child’s lead but ask stimulating questions that get your child thinking about money during the play, such as, “Now, why did you make me pay $0.25 for my carton of milk and $0.50 for my eggs?”
Your role in guided play is to support your child’s decisions and gently shape their behavior without taking over the play or showing them how to do it better.
Structured play is the best place to start because you’re actively teaching your child, either through direct guidance or by setting up the environment to encourage the kind of behavior you’re looking for.
You can use many different games to teach your kids about money. There are even apps. Or you can use your imagination and create your own games with household items or your child’s toys.
Board Games That Teach Kids About Money
With board games, you can be very casual about your teaching experience by working it into family game night. Or you can be obvious about your intentions and go with a game specifically designed to teach money management. The choice is yours.
My family recently stumbled upon The Farming Game, and we love it. Think Monopoly but farming. Players start the game in debt and move through the 12 months of the year buying, investing, harvesting, and paying off debt. The goal is to be the first farmer to reach $250,000 in assets. Watch out, though. Sometimes, bad luck falls, and livestock or crops are destroyed.
Video Games That Teach Personal Finance
Video games are excellent tools for teaching your kids about financial concepts like work, earning money, saving money, and determining the value of goods. Kids don’t even realize they’re learning such vital lessons while playing. Non-board games that teach kids important money lessons include:
- Animal Crossing. Animal Crossing is a Nintendo Switch game that teaches about economics and finances. Players live on an island with talking animals. They have to pay a mortgage, make investments, and build the island village.
- Financial Football. Visa and the National Football League teamed up to teach kids about money management in this fun interactive game. Players move the ball down the field and score touchdowns by correctly answering financial questions covering a wide range of topics, from credit cards to scholarships to bankruptcy.
- Farming Simulator. In this game, available for the Xbox, the Nintendo Switch, Windows, or the PS4, players run a farm. They need to use money management skills for farming-related expenses like buying equipment, hiring workers, and buying livestock.
Apps and Online Games That Teach Financial Literacy
These online games are so much fun your kids won’t even realize they are learning about money.
- Renegade Buggies. In this game, players drive through cities in a buggy, collecting items on their shopping lists, grabbing coins and coupons.
- RollerCoaster Tycoon. This game uses a fun amusement park to teach about supply and demand, budgeting, and risk-taking. You can get it for Windows, Mac OS, and Nintendo Switch or download the app for Android or iOS.
- SimCity. SimCity games teach about economics and environmental issues. There are many different games to choose from. SimCity 4 (available for Mac OS and Windows) lets you build a realistic city. And the SimCity Limited Edition, created for the PC, lets you mold your city into a stronghold for a particular market, such as a casino town or manufacturing hub.
- City Island 5. This sim game, available on Mac OS, Windows, Google Play, and iOS, makes you the mayor of a small island town.
- PBS Kids CyberChase. This website provides tons of free online games, videos, and interactive activities that teach kids about money.
DIY Educational Games to Teach Money Concepts
You don’t always need video games and board games to teach your kids. You can create games at home with household supplies as well.
These games are easy to throw together and a lot of fun for both parents and kids.
- Sorting Coins. Give your kids a pile of coins to sort by size or value. This activity introduces them to handling money and teaches the names and values of each coin.
- Penny Race. Have a pile of pennies lying around? To introduce your children to handling money, challenge your kids to stack them as tall as they can in just a minute.
- Collect $0.25. Grab some coins and a die. Taking turns, each player rolls the die and collects the number shown in coins. The first person to make $0.25 wins. The game teaches the value of each coin and the many different ways they can add up to a certain dollar amount. You can also play to a half dollar and a dollar.
- How Much Does It Cost? This game is similar to “The Price is Right.” Present your kids with a variety of objects and have them guess how much they cost. For example, does a water bottle cost $1, $5, or $7? This game teaches kids the value of things.
- Pay to Play. Use real or play money to determine how many times your child has to act out a specific challenge. For instance, have your child draw a bill out of a hat, identify the number on it, and then hop on one foot for that many times. So if they drew a $5 bill, they’d hop five times. Shake it up with various challenges or increase the difficulty by throwing in $20s, $50s, and $100s. This game shows your kids how much the bills are worth in a more fun, concrete way.
- Puzzle It Out. Affix play money to a piece of cardboard. Cut the cardboard into puzzle shapes and let your child put the bills back together. This game will familiarize your child with money.
- Pretty Cash. Break out the markers and paper, and let your children create their very own bills. They can then use these bills in other money games. Creating their own bills also teaches them the value of money since they have to assign their own values to each bill.
- Open for Business. This game teaches kids about responsibility and how to earn money. Set up a store of things your kids love — snacks, treats, dollar store knickknacks, and even some bigger swag to encourage saving. Then, compensate them for their chores with play money. For example, pay $1 for making the bed and $2 for taking out the trash. At the end of the week, they can visit your store with their earnings or save for bigger-ticket merchandise.
Money-Related Music Videos
YouTube has a ton of videos that teach about money.
For example, these videos teach your kids how to identify coins and what their values are:
The Jackson Charitable Foundation launched an entire collection of Cha-Ching Money Smart Kids videos to teach children about money.
Montessori blog Carrots are Orange also has some fun money-themed preschool songs you can teach your kids. You sing the catchy lyrics to tunes your kids already know, such as “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”
Gather your kiddos for an educational family movie night, and they won’t even know they’re learning.
- “Aladdin.” Aladdin, a street kid, finds himself in possession of a genie in a lamp. When given three wishes, he uses one of them to become a prince so he can marry his true love, Princess Jasmine. Things don’t go as planned, of course. This funny Disney classic teaches children never to let money change who they are or their relationships with others.
- “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” The Grinch hates how materialistic Christmas has become, so he steals all the gifts, food, and decorations. Cindy Lou, a little Who girl, shows the Grinch that Christmas has always been more than the dollars spent and that it begins in the heart, not at the store.
- “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Charlie comes from nothing but wins a tour of the Chocolate Factory with four other kids, who come from money. These children are spoiled and naughty. They each lose the prize because they break the rules. Even when he thinks he’s lost, Charlie still does the right thing, teaching little ones that no prize is worth sacrificing your integrity.
- “Toy Story 2.” A greedy toy collector kidnaps Woody, hoping to put the hero and his friends in a museum to be admired by children but never played with. Woody is thrilled he’s worth so much but quickly learns nothing is worth more than knowing who you are and serving your purpose in life.
- “The Princess Bride.” This movie has two financial lessons. If your goal is to teach your children about understanding their risk tolerance (a key lesson to learn before opening a 401(k) or investing in general), pay attention to the poisoned wine scene. If your kids are younger, you can use Inigo’s pursuit of killing his father’s murderer to teach your children that it is always essential to have a bill-paying side job while following your passion.
- “Up.” This Disney Pixar film teaches the importance of saving. Carl and Ellie dream of moving their house to a cliff overlooking Paradise Falls. They spend years saving for their dream but continuously need to dip into their savings to cover life’s expenses.
- “Harry Potter.” Harry grows up in hand-me-downs from his cousin Dudley and lives in a cupboard under the stairs. He suddenly learns his parents left him a small fortune (and that he’s a wizard), but instead of spending it on a life of luxury, Harry takes only what he needs and continues to live a moderate lifestyle.
- “The Hunger Games.” Katniss Everdeen lives in the most impoverished district of Panem and must fight for survival in the Hunger Games. As other tributes are rushing to collect things they mistakenly think will increase their chances of survival, Katniss relies instead on skill and instinct. You can use this movie to teach your children to rely on their own skills for financial stability rather than spending their money to collect things that aren’t going to further their financial goals at all.
Books That Teach Kids About Money
Books are an engaging way to teach little ones about money because you can ask questions about what’s happening and discuss the moral of the story.
There are loads of kids books about money, but you can start with these.
- “Money Math.” In this quirky informational book by David A. Adler, the U.S. presidents introduce children to the bills and coins that bear their likenesses and teach the value of each.
- “Rock, Brock and the Savings Shock.” Sheila Bair’s 2017 children’s book teaches your kids the value of saving money and investing. A loving grandpa doubles the money Brock saves each day, while Rock loses all his money.
- “Bunny Money.” Rosemary Wells tells the tale of two bunnies who save enough money for the perfect birthday present for Grandma only to watch the money disappear as mishap after mishap requires them to fork it over.
- “Berenstain Bears’ Trouble with Money.” In this timeless story about entrepreneurship from renowned children’s book writers Stan and Jan Berenstain, Brother Bear and Sister Bear sacrifice their relationships with friends and family in their pursuit of money.
- “One Cent, Two Cent, Old Cent, New Cent.” Your kids will love Dr. Seuss’ fascinating, playful introduction to the history of money.
- “The Go-Around Dollar.” Did you ever wonder where a dollar travels? Barbara Johnston Adams explores the meaning of its symbols and how long it stays in circulation.
- “A Bike Like Sergio’s.” This heartfelt story by Maribeth Boelts teaches about economics and how not everyone can afford the same things. Ruben wants a bike just like Sergio’s, and Sergio notes that Ruben’s birthday is coming up, so he might get it. But Ruben knows the gifts he receives on his birthday are nothing like the gifts Sergio gets. Ruben gets his chance to buy a bike like Sergio’s when he finds a $100 bill, but at what cost?
After you’ve taught your kids some basic money concepts and have engaged them in various financial games, it’s time to step back and watch the magic happen through unstructured play.
Unstructured play is free play — there’s no purpose or goal. Children get to explore their environment and create their own games. There are no rules or limitations, and they can imagine whatever they want.
According to a 2018 study published in the journal Pediatrics, this type of play improves proficiency in areas like executive functioning (a set of mental skills involving memory, flexible thinking, and self-control), early math skills, peer relations, self-agency, and social development. When it involves peer groups, it also improves negotiation skills, cooperation, and problem-solving. It also helps teach your child cultural values, including your financial values.
Children use free play to practice the skills they’ve learned and model what they’ve seen in the world around them. If you witness your kids paying the bills while playing house or going to work at the ice cream store they just opened, you know they’ve taken your lessons from structured play and used them in unstructured play.
The Pediatrics study also notes the importance of the play remaining free from adult interference. Kids whose caregivers teach them to use toys don’t discover as much about the toys. But parents who let their children play without too much intrusion foster independent exploration and learning.
So if you choose to play with your child during unstructured play, follow your kid’s lead and play by their rules, even if you know there’s a better way to play. The goal is for your child to practice all they’ve learned in their own way.
If you don’t see your child weaving money and finances into play independently, it doesn’t mean they haven’t internalized those money management skills. Not all young kids are ready to play that way, and that’s OK.
But if you’re concerned, you can incorporate some adult-led play into free play. For example, if you’re playing house with your child, pretend to sit down and pay the bills. If your child tells you no, then stop paying the bills and follow your child’s lead. But if your child is interested and wants to pay the bills, you can let your child take over. If your child shows no interest one way or the other, keep paying the bills until you’re done.
If your child loves creative play, you can easily incorporate financial lessons while you’re playing house, business, or even cars (you have to pay for gas, after all). Because unstructured play has no rules other than those established by your kids, you have to get creative and think quickly. But the tips in these scenarios can prepare you to inject a little financial learning into your kids’ next little adventure.
Kids play business naturally, even without adult guidance. They love to play store or restaurant. But playing business doesn’t have to stop there.
You can convert pretty much any toy they have into a business. For example:
- Ice Cream Parlor. Grab the ice cream from your child’s toy kitchen or ice cream play dough to set up an ice cream shop. Ask them if you can place an order and pay for it with play money.
- Doctor or Animal Hospital. When your kids are playing doctor or vet, ask them how much it would cost to bring your own stuffed animal or doll in for shots. Again, pay them with play money after the visit.
- Car Wash or Gas Station. When your kids are playing cars, join in and pull your vehicle over to fill up with gas or get a car wash. You can also set up a “car wash” outside with bicycles, scooters, and trikes.
- Family Farm. If your kids are playing farm, ask if you can haul the pigs to the market or buy the hay to feed the animals. Find out how much it costs, and ask your child for the play money to make the purchase.
- Barbies. You can use Barbies and dolls to go shopping, plan a wedding, or buy a car. Use play money to buy Barbie’s clothes or pay for wedding necessities like flowers and the gown. You can even offer to sell Barbie her dream car.
Some financial concepts are hard to grasp. But you can act them out using toys.
For example, you can teach your children about insurance by simulating toy car crashes or pretending toy buildings are burning down.
Or you can introduce your kids to medical insurance by playing doctor.
As you play, have discussions about the financial implications of these events. Just keep it age-appropriate. And use your parental judgment. If talking about burning buildings or car crashes would scare your child, don’t do it.
Playing house is easiest when you have more than one kid. Your children can choose who they want to be and what they do.
Does Dad go to work at the restaurant and Mom go to work at the ice cream shop? Does one or the other stay home with the kids?
Use stuffed animals or dolls for the kids if you don’t have enough children. Does someone need to drop them off at school or day care?
Act out a typical day, with the whole family rushing home again at the end of the day for bed.
Use play money to pay Mom and Dad for their day’s work. And don’t let them forget to pay the day care provider once they get their wages.
Using Play in the Real World
You don’t have to confine play to the home or park. When you’re running errands with your kids, try playing with them. It can help you teach them money skills and keep them entertained.
Ways to Play While Shopping
Playing with your kids while running errands teaches them financial concepts and keeps them occupied, making it easier for you to get your errands done. And there are many ways to incorporate play while shopping.
- Enlist the Help of Your Kids. Before you head out, enlist your child’s help with clipping coupons and planning the grocery list. When you get to the store, have them compare and contrast brands, quantity, and prices. Ask them to help you find the best bang for your buck.
- Challenge Them. See how many products on your list they can get with a certain amount of money. For example, if you give them $10, how many items can they cross off?
- Encourage Them to Spend Their Own Money. If your children ask for a toy, tell them to use their own money to get it. Then show them how to pay for the toy at the cash register.
- Quiz Them. While you’re shopping, quiz your kids on how much they think something costs as you put it into the cart. Kids often underestimate how much things are worth, and learning the actual price can be eye-opening.
- Guess the Bill at the Till. How much does that cart of groceries cost? The person closest to the actual price gets to choose where you have lunch or which park you play at.
Turn Your Errands Into Field Trips
Wherever you go, turn the outing into a field trip. Try to tour as much of the business as you can with your kids.
For example, if you’re at the bank, talk with your kids about who the tellers are, where the money goes after you deposit it, and what the vault is for. Call ahead to ask for a tour if you have time. Many businesses are happy to oblige.
If you can’t get a live tour, finish the field trip with a virtual tour. You can find video tours on YouTube or just by searching the Internet for the business type, such as restaurants, laundromats, grocery stores, post offices, and salons, plus the words “virtual tour.”
Start a Coin Collection
There are many different types of coin collections. You can collect by date, mint, design, or denomination, just to name a few. For example, my son and his grandma collected state quarters.
As you collect coins, discuss the history behind our financial system and the currency. Don’t worry. It’s not as boring as you probably think.
For example, why is President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the dime? The story begins when Roosevelt contracted polio and began using a wheelchair as a result.
He started a foundation to try to raise money for the cause. At the time, popular singer Eddie Cantor jokingly asked people to send a dime to the White House in support of the organization — but the people took him seriously. Soon enough, despite the ongoing Great Depression, the White House was inundated with $0.10 donations.
The organization Roosevelt founded later changed its name to the March of Dimes. Interesting, right?
Study the history behind the president honored on each coin with your kids while building your collection. Some other questions to ask are: Why are some no longer in circulation, and what is the coin shortage all about?
Coin collecting teaches history, geography, math, and even politics. And as the dime proves, it can be very engaging.
Pay the Bills
While you’re paying the bills, encourage your child to do the same — only for pretend.
Set your child up next to you at the table or desk. Give them a pencil, some paper, some play money, and envelopes. Hand them a calculator and anything else you think they could play with, and let them mimic what you’re doing.
Ask for Cash
If your kids are anything like mine, they have plenty of toys. So encourage family and friends to give cash instead of toys for holidays and birthdays.
Cash teaches your kids how to manage, budget, give, and save money as they use it to buy things they want.
Teaching our children good money habits is our job as parents. If we teach them basic money concepts at an early age, it’s easier for them to grasp more advanced financial concepts later, such as how to use credit cards, savings accounts, and debit cards.
And an easy, fun way to do that is by playing. Set aside some time each week to play with your child and teach them about money. There are many different ways to play, from board games to creative play. Choose something you enjoy, and have fun with it. When you play money games with your child, you’re providing financial education for life.