Or: How I learned about EVERYTHING from a coin.
I like to collect money. Who doesn’t? But I’m talking about weird money. If you travel, it’s actually not strange to see different sorts of money, but 35+ years ago when I first stumbled across a coin bearing non-Latin characters, it seemed a magical treasure. A mystery to be solved.
But back then in the long, long ago, there was no World Wide Web. What was a curious kid to do with a weird coin? I asked an adult, who passed the buck and pointed me to another adult. Eventually, I got the answer: “Hmmm. Yep. That’s a Japanese ¥10 coin!”
Oh wow! What’s it worth? (Well, ten yen, obvs.) Where’d it come from? (Um, Japan, maybe?) No, I mean, how did it get there?? What’s going on?! So, yeah, riddle never fully solved. I still have that coin.
I started paying more attention to currency. Growing up in an international, maritime border town only 50 scant miles from another country, it was common for consumers to find foreign coins given in change. Most stores just as readily accepted the funny money, a coin here or there, as compensation and legal tender. So that sort of thing wasn’t weird to me. Which is weird, and a slippery slope. I love me some vulgar cultural relativism!
So what’s the point here? Oh yeah, through international currency, I learned about the world. About math. About geography and history. About user experience. Resources. Scarcity. People. And on and on. The view through currency is a captivating lens most of us ignore. More so now that we live in a plastic and digital world of commerce.
The Gift of Coins
About a decade ago, knowing about my numismatist proclivities, my father in-law gave me a sack of coins he saved from his adventures on the high seas during the Vietnam War. Many of them were duplicates. I picked out the best of each and added them to my coin collection. The copious remaining extra coins made me reflect on how many duplicates I already had in my collection. I separated all of my “extra” coins and thought, “What can I do with these?”
After talking to a few parent-friends, in 2013 I decided I wanted to leave them lying around where kids might find them to organically spark their curiosity. I contacted the principal at the nearest local grade school and offered to leave international coins around school grounds, classrooms, the playground, etc. Nope. Not interested. I tried another school. Same deal, same denial. They wanted nothing to do with creative, organic learning opportunities. Some guy leaving money for kids to find? Thanks but no thanks.
I was flummoxed by what I quickly realized is an all too typical post-9/11, 24-hour news cycle over-protection mentality colliding head-on with an unfortunate ongoing trend in public school curricula wherein schools cut creative extracurricular elements and prioritize training your kids to do well on endless standardized tests.
I bitched and moaned about that for a while until somebody smartly mentioned that libraries would be much more welcoming of a coin curriculum. As the son of a librarian, you’d think I’d know this sort of thing already. Sure enough, when I contacted the library, they were receptive.
In 2014, alongside Youth Services Librarian Luke Bentley, I morphed the “leave coins around” idea into a coin-based workshop for kids. We hid coins around a big room in the library. The children searched for and found the coins. They made rubbings of coins they and others found. We spread out every coin-related book in the library for perusal/research. They asked questions about the coins. Then Luke read them a coin story, I think it was this one. I sent each kid home with a few coins. Happy kids.
I intended to further develop and lead more workshops building upon that experience, but later that year I moved across the country.
Coins and COVID? How does that work?
Fast forward to coronavirus COVID-19 2020. I’ve heard countless stories from parents suddenly thrust into being homeschool teachers, parents, and if they’re lucky enough to still be employed, workers. It’s like three full time jobs. The challenges of keeping children engaged in learning in quarantine sound stupefying to an intentional DINKer like me.
So I gifted a sack of coins to a few parent-friends, along with a list of ideas about how they might be able to educate and entertain their children for a few hours with them.
Below, you’ll find slightly more fleshed out ideas for lessons using international coins. A few of these ideas are specific to younger children, while some of them might require more advanced thought or at least an older, deeper attention span. Most of them, however, require only a little curiosity. …And a few coins.
Lend me your eyes, your coins.
Before the super-dope coin fun, please permit me to end this long introduction with a plea: Do you have extra international coins? Feel like sending them to some guy on the Internet who says he’s using them to enrich COVID-19 home school curriculum stuff? Let me know. I’d be happy to give your coins new homes in the hands of countless grubby kids. I try to put at least a dozen different countries’ coins in each packet, and I’m close to running out. Or, better yet, make your own coin packs and hand them out to your beleaguered parent-friends with a link to this blog post of lesson plan ideas, so they can bask in the easy hours of kid coin learning.
Coin Lesson Plan Ideas
The Treasure Hunt Mystery? (Booty!)
The first step, regardless of what you or your child decides to do next, is to try to get them to discover the coins. If you hand them a sack of coins and say, “Here. Learn something,” it’s probably not going to go well.
Think: Easter egg hunt?
- Hide the money all around a room or rooms. In things. Under things.
- Maybe add a little sense of urgency? “I have it on good authority there’s weird money hidden here. Find as many coins as you can in two minutes. Go!”
That’s the crux. Keen readers will note this is a proxy of sorts for when young me chanced upon a strange coin; recreating the wonderment of stumbling upon something mysterious. Plant a seed of curiosity by instilling the process with a little playful effort.
I’ll also note that, if you think your son or daughter thrives on less structure, in lieu of hiding a bunch of coins, you might consider leaving a single coin out in plain sight, unannounced, and see what comes of it. Rinse and repeat. Repeat what?
Once they’ve found the coins, what next?
Is there a science to numismatics? Call it what you will, it’s time for your budding scientists to gather data and catalog. What’s their coin taxonomy? That depends on the student’s age and their interests. I’ve struggled with how to organize these ideas. By age? Nope. By topic? Better, but there’s so much overlap. Work with what ya got. And remember, only go with what you think your kid will like. There’s value in each and every exercise.
Geography-ish + Coins
Where are these coins from? It’s not always evident. Look at the coins. Make a list. Sometimes you’ll want to use Google to see if you can find more information.
Can I find the issuer of each coin on a map? Do you have a globe, atlas, or a world map? No? Use Google Maps.
What are these places like? Use Google, Wikipedia and other sources to investigate the countries for a few minutes.
Which three places do you most want to visit? Why? Um, Japan, because it’s awesome!
Which is the place you least want to visit? Why? Got an El Salvador coin? Well, they’ve got the highest homicide rate in the world.
Do all of these countries still exist? Nope. I’ve got plenty of coins for nonexistent places. E.g. British Borneo – followup: Can you find a map with that nonexistent country on it?
Are all of them countries? No. e.g. Hong Kong.
Are there any cases where the country is still around but the currency isn’t? Yes. e.g. French francs.
Did you find two currencies used by a single country? Sure. E.g. pfennig and euro.
Conversely, do any of the coins act as currency for multiple countries? e.g. The EU/Euro, Eastern Caribbean Dollar, etc.
Is there value in their value? Maybe.
How much is each coin worth in USD? Lots of different ways to word this in a Google search.
Do all of the coins have dates on them? Probably not. But most do, right?
Might the coins have been worth more or less (vs USD) in the past when the coin was minted? Several notions here, from fluctuating exchange rates to inflation.
Might some of the coins be worth more because they are older? Notions of scarcity, antiquity, collectability, and whatnot.
Which coin that you found is worth the most? What are the most valuable coins in the world? Google it. It’s not an easy answer.
Do you know what counterfeiting is? Do you think any of this money is counterfeit? (I have a few counterfeit bills, and depending on your definition, I have bogus coins, too.) Why would somebody counterfeit? What are the effects of that? Should we talk more about fake money? Obviously, Monopoly money isn’t counterfeit, but there’s a line somewhere…
A Spurious Currency Aside
As a young’n, when I found a coin-like metal disc, I asked my father what it was. I’m now fairly certain it was just a simple hole punchout from an electrical junction box, but he took the opportunity to tell me about “slugs” and how people have been trying to fool machines into accepting non-currency as currency for ages.
As a poor college student, back when the parking meters took nickels and dimes, a friend showed me how pennies minted in certain years, via vigorous boot-stomping and a little scraping on the sidewalk, would then be accepted as dimes. Now I just bop my phone at a meter to pay for parking.
Arcade Tokens, In-app Currencies, & Game Theory?
What about tokens? Back when arcades were prevalent, the tokens topic would have been more appropriate for talking to kids about coins. But now, you’ll probably feel like a fuddy-duddy trying to explain arcade tokens to them. While not a perfect analogy, the nearest modern example of tokens they might be able to relate to is game in-app currency, which is deeply tied to game theory. Is there an exchange rate between game gems and USD? Usually, because there are often in-app purchases. So, yeah, there are probably plenty of jumping off points for coin-learning even from this digital funny money.
Back to our regularly scheduled coin lesson plan:
Physical Properties of Coins
How do the coins look different? Size? Shape? Color? Taste? Don’t eat coins, but the story of why people used to bite coins is interesting.
Do any of the coins seem to be made from different materials? Are some coins lighter than others? Why might some coins be made of different materials? Some of my favorite stories about the material makeup of coins include the 1943 penny. My “composite” (READ: plastic) currency from Transnistria, which is doubly interesting because it’s a barely recognized country.
My aunt, long a Bell System employee, recently reminded me that Bell Labs was behind the specifics of the 1965 US quarter coin recipe rejiggering from silver to copper-nickel clad. Payphones needed to be able to recognize both old and new versions as legit while rejecting slugs.
Why would coins be different sizes? For improved user experience! E.g. in the USA, blind people can’t tell bill denominations apart. A $1 bill feels just like a $100 bill. Horrible UX! Many countries use different sized bills to help people with impaired vision.
Do any of these coins have mint marks or something like a mint mark? (e.g. US, Euro, and some others.)
Some coins have holes. Why? Could you make a necklace from a coin? Speaking of coins with holes, you could point your young one to the Rai stones. Cool coin-ish story.
For younger kids: Maybe try some pattern matching. Order the coins by size. Order coins by denomination. Put’em in piles of similar color. Smooth edges vs etched? Etc.
What are the similarities and differences in coin designs? People? Landmarks? Animals? Mottos? Etc. Do any coins feature women? It’s tough to suss things like race and skin color from the busts on coins, but there are potential learning moments there, too. Which is a decent segue into…
History: Coins as a lens to the past. (and future?)
Back to the notion of dates on coins, What was happening in the world when this coin was made? There are definitely some wartime coins in the packs I hand out.
If there’s a person, building or symbol on the coin, does it have something to do with an historical event? Usually, yes. What is it? Why is it on a coin? Depictions on coins can be an anchor for victor-written history, but they’re sometimes tools of change. Get it? That there is a double entendre. A pun. Sorry. -ish.
I wanted to do a larger section on “History” but when it comes down to it, these are the only big questions. Good news: there are many answers and paths to explore.
Coins and the arts?
Does making a rubbing of the coins sometimes make them more legible? Put paper over the coin and rub a pencil or crayon across it. Can you make any art out of these? Does grandma or your friend want a coin rubbing gift? Too bad, it’s got your coronavirus ALL over it! We have to burn it.
If you were the supreme ruler of the national mint of your own country, what would your coins look like? Can you draw some fancy coins for your new country? What values will you try to convey on your currency?
Can you use the coins to make a pattern or design? A circle of coins? A triangle? (For the young ones, natch.)
Write a fictional short story (or picture book) about how one of the coins came from its origin back then to here, today. Come up with at least [X] different people who touched it. Additional prompts for younger kids. How was it carried? Was it in a particularly decorated pocket purse? Was it lost for a while?
Speaking of fiction, maybe your kid/s can think of some made-up currency from their favorite stories or video games?
Coin errata and meta-coin questions
Why do people collect coins? Do kids still use coins for candy machines? Will people still make coins in the future? Why don’t they make coins out of crackers? Crackers are delicious.
What is money? Or, depending on your kid’s curiosity and age, maybe something closer to, “WT is money, anyhow? I mean, what does it mean?! Like, what the bleep is it? Why do we have it?” You’ll get a different answer depending on who you ask. Wikipedia says this about money. Want something more nuanced and interesting? I really enjoyed Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money. Well, the chapter on insurance wasn’t exactly riveting, but it still had its moments. …And I notice Mr. Ferguson has added a few new chapters since I read it. Do me a favor: read it, and let me know if I should read the new chapters? 😉
… And on and on. So many potential lessons depending on the age of the audience, their interest level, etc. I won’t speak too poorly of it, but the US Mint’s coin curriculum, while thorough in some regards, ain’t got nothin’ on this one. Enjoy coin-based learning wherever you find it!
I hope this keeps your kids busy for a little while, and maybe they’ll learn something. Good luck!
DISCLAIMER: Don’t let your kids eat coins or any non-food. Not even disinfectant. Coin learning isn’t for everybody. So don’t force it. Dan Dreifort is not an education expert. Don’t blame him if your kid becomes the next Charles Ponzi. Special thanks to Ethan Contini-Field for some of the ideas for wee ones playing with coins, and big thanks to Aaron Smith, Tracey Hayes, and Jean Dreifort for other bits.