4 Common Mistakes When Teaching Money to Kids

Text: 4 Mistakes Teachers Make when teaching money. Photo shows a row of coins with 2 nickels and 2 pennies.

Teaching money to kids is hard. Read this blog post to find ways to make it easier for kids to learn how to count money.

I sat next to Damien, helping him count the handful of coins in front of him. We had been practicing coins for weeks and I was hoping he finally had it… He picked up the quarter and quickly said, “25.” I smiled. Then he pointed to the pile of nickels and said, “Are these dimes 10 or 5?” There went my smile…

Why is counting money so hard for kids?

If you’ve had a math unit about teaching money to kids of any age, you’ve noticed that it can be confusing. What always amazes me is which kids have a hard time counting money and which kids find it easy. Plenty of times I’ve had strong math students who struggle to count money; and kids who struggle with math facts who learn to count money quickly! Why is it so challenging for some kids to count money?

  • American coins feel very abstract – the coin sizes and values don’t match.
  • There are lots of things to memorize: coin names, coin values, and skip counting, to name a few. Not to mention the variety within the same kind of coin. (I’m looking at you, state quarters.)
  • Counting money involves a lot of skip counting – by 1s, 5s, 10s, and even 25s.
  • You have to change how you count each time you count a different kind of coin.

What mistakes do teachers make when teaching money to kids?

Sometimes we inadvertently make a skill harder for kids when we teach it. This is particularly true when we teach an abstract concept that we use constantly and automatically in our own lives. Very true for counting money!

Here are a few of the most common mistakes to make when teaching money to kids:

  • Ignoring skip counting – it’s easy to assume kids are solid with skip-counting, but if they are not, counting money becomes a disaster.
  • Using coins that are hard to identify.
  • Moving too fast.
  • Discouraging flexibility.

How should you teach money to kids?

Connect to the known.

Learning is always easier when you can connect the new information to something you already know. So what might kids already know that can help them count money?

  • coin names and values (if not, spend time on this first)
  • skip counting
  • counting base ten blocks (not required, but can be helpful)

If your students are not solid with coin names/values and skip counting, they will struggle greatly with counting money. They don’t need to know the names and values of all the coins – just the ones you are going to start with. Sometimes visual supports help students remember coin names and values. This blog post shares a few visuals that might help your students.

Skip counting is a key prerequisite skill for counting money. Your students can’t count money without skip counting! It’s easy to assume your students learned how to skip count in prior grades – and that’s likely true for most kids. However, if you have students who are struggling to count coins, check their ability to count by 5s and 10s to 100. 

Skip counting can be very tricky for some kids to learn. If they learn it before they understand the patterns in the number system, it’s just a series of numbers to memorize. However, this particular series of numbers helps our number system make SO much more sense! If your students struggle with skip counting, songs are a great way to help them memorize the pattern. (I love anything by Jack Hartmann for this!)

But also spend time helping your students notice the patterns on a number grid. Often, color coding the number grid helps them see the pattern for counting by 10s. Once they understand how to count by tens, show them what counting by 5s looks like on a number grid. Help them connect this new skill to their known (counting by 10s.)

Photo of two hundred charts, with the patterns of 5s and 10s colored yellow.

If your kids are still struggling with skip counting, learn more tips and tricks in this blog post. Skip counting takes a lot of time and practice, but it is an important foundation for our number system.

Finally, if your students know how to count longs and cubes (base ten blocks), show them how that connects to counting dimes and pennies. (If they don’t know how to count base ten blocks, no big deal. Counting coins will become their known for base ten blocks later in the year.)

Start slowly

Most math curriculum starts with counting two coin types for a reason. We all realize how abstract the American coin system is, and counting only two types of coins at first is a way to simplify the task a bit.

(Truthfully, you might even consider only one kind of coin at first. This can help the children associate the appropriate skip counting with that particular coin. When this is solid, add a second coin where you have to switch skip counting patterns.)

By focusing on two kinds of coins, kids only need to remember two coin values and only need to switch counting patterns once (for example, from 5s to 1s.) This significantly decreases the cognitive load and increases success.

Wait to introduce another coin type until the child can count the first two kinds easily, in a mixed group. Many students will need lots of practice with counting coins, but you might need to get creative to keep it fun. At the end of this post, I share my favorite ways to keep coin counting fun.

Use real coins with beginners

This can be a deal breaker for some kids! We’ve all seen those cheap plastic coins that don’t look much like the real thing. Imagine what it’s like when you have to think hard to tell which is a quarter and which is a nickel. Then try it with the cheap plastic coins! You feel doomed!

A row of coins on a table: 2 nickels followed by 4 pennies.

If you don’t have a set of real coins available to you, you might ask parents to send some in. Typically, if most parents send in the following, you can make it work. Here’s what I’ve done:

  • 20 pennies
  • 6 nickels
  • 10 dimes
  • 4 quarters

If you can’t get real coins for your entire class, think about grabbing just a few coins for your students who are struggling to count money. This might be the one thing that makes the task more concrete and successful for them.

Use worksheets and games with colored images

We know that plastic coins can be tricky to identify. Sadly, the coins on black-and-white worksheets and games can be equally challenging. When students are having a hard time with coin counting, try using worksheets and games that include colored coins instead. 

Photos of an I Have... Who Has... coin game. The colored pictures of coins help when teaching money to kids.

Not sure how important this is? Think about your own real life. How often do you have to identify coins based on their black and white outlines? Never, outside your classroom. We want to set kids up for success in real life, so why waste time identifying coins on paper, when that doesn’t represent the real life use of coins? Plus, it just makes the task more confusing for students.

Connect to bundling and exchanging.

OK, this one is a bit more advanced, but it’s still important. Once kids are good at basic coin counting, they will need to know about exchanging coins. 

What are fun ways to teach kids about money?

You know it’s going to take lots of repetition and practice when you are teaching money to kids. But you don’t want it to be boring. What’s a teacher to do? Here are a few of my favorite fun ways to teach kids about money:

Use large coins. 

I found large paper coins at a teacher store years ago. They are kind of like these. When my kids learn to count coins, we often start each lesson with a whole group practice time using these giant coins. I hand out a few, one to each student. Those students stand up front, and as I point to them, the class counts the coin values chorally. Just the ability to hold a giant coin makes this repetition more engaging!

Set up a classroom store.

This is very engaging, but a bit time consuming. (And, therefore, it may be a perfect task for a parent volunteer.)

Ask parents to send in little goodies – kids’ meal toys, sheets of stickers, toy cars, plastic jewelry, etc. Add a price to each item. To simplify it, you can certainly create a box for things that are each price. Each student gets $1.00 in coins to spend at the store, but they can only purchase one item at a time (because you want them to practice counting coins!)

Use math games with coins.

There are tons of educational math games out there that help students practice counting coins. My personal favorite is Coin War. It’s played like a traditional war game, only kids count coins, instead of using playing cards. They have so much fun that they don’t even realize they are learning!

Photos of game cards with colored coins to make it easier for  teaching money to kids.

Coin puzzles are another popular way to practice counting coins. To do these puzzles, kids count to find the value of the coins, then find the puzzle piece showing that amount. This is yet another way that kids can practice counting coins without it feeling like repetitive work.

Photo of math puzzles showing a group of coins and their value. The colored images of the coins make teaching coins to kids easier.

I believe so strongly in using games to support learning that I have another blog post that shares lots of easy games you can play when you are teaching money to kids. There are several games that require nothing besides coins and dice.

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Text: 4 Mistakes Teachers Make when teaching money. Photo shows a row of coins with 2 nickels and 2 pennies.

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