Kiddie Labor

Elementary schools teach children, as young as 8, the principles of finance and economics

July, 2003

Sometimes, cashiers at this Hawaii Kai store use pencils, paper and fingers to add and subtract. Sometimes, when a customer forks over $20, a store employee fumbles with the right amount of change. But no one ever seems to mind. The “customers” are elementary students at Hahaione School. The “employees” are fourth and fifth graders who work at the school’s mini store twice a week from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Call it the modern-day kid’s lemonade stand, if you will.

“On a good day, they’ll make $200,” says John Taguchi, a teacher and the store’s faculty supervisor. Retail prices range from 25 cents for a pack of gummy bears to $10 for an item emblazoned with the school’s hawk mascot. Like all businesses, the store has its cycles. Lanyards and coin holders are popular in the beginning of the academic year, while science-project display boards sell like hotcakes between December and February. So much so that Hahaione School used mini-store sales and other school funds to purchase a $3,000 sound system.

Jobs are competitive. Last academic year, General Manager Amy Stanfield hired 10 store employees, after interviewing dozens of candidates and carefully reviewing their applications. Yes, job applications. The hardest part about Amy’s general manager position was “helping people with the job they have to do and going to all the meetings,” she says. But don’t judge Amy. She just turned 12 this summer. Her employees were ages 9 to 12.

Educators agree that it is never too early to teach economics to young children. In fact, that’s where most schools fail. The 2002 “Report Card” by the National Council on Economic Education (NCEE) finds that the majority of America’s high-school students are not taught real-life skills required to become “knowledgeable consumers, prudent savers and investors, productive members of the work force and responsible citizens.” At the end of 2002, only 14 states required high-school students to take an economics course in order to graduate; and four states required a personal-finance course. Hawaii was not among them. However, it was one of 48 states that included economics in its standards. Rhode Island and Iowa were the two states that did not, according to the NCEE report.

Educators across the country are playing catch-up. Rather than create new courses, however, the NCEE advises schools to incorporate finance and economics into daily subjects, such as math and reading.

Gail Tamaribuchi, director for the University of Hawaii’s center for economic education, agrees. She firmly believes in Mini-Society, a method that teaches economics, entrepreneurship and citizenship to children ages 8 to 12. For about 12 weeks, students live in a mock community and elect local leaders. On “market days,” students run their own businesses, using paper currency.

Mini-Society is not new. A UCLA professor developed the idea in the 1970s. “It’s an experience where students decide what they’ll be paid for, what kind of business they’ll have, then once they do that, they go into production mode,” says Tamaribuchi, who has taught the Mini-Society method to teachers on Kauai and the Big Island. She plans to teach a course at the Maui Community College this summer. “Teachers need to know the content so that they can debrief properly – it takes a very special teacher to do this,” she says.

Teachers such as Pam Shim, who has worked at Iolani School for 17 years. Each term, her third-grade students participate in a 12-week, Mini-Society session. “It’s a perfect setting,” she says. “We have so many parents in business, and the parents would often say, ‘My kids tell me about profit and loss and how I can market.’ They naturally feed off of each other in this environment.” In the 2002 to 2003 academic year, her students elected their own leaders and sold goods ranging from homemade games to cookies and mini-massages. Some students formed business partnerships with fellow students, while others were sole proprietors.

Shim evaluated her students based on performance and written reports. She recalls, “I was just reading one that said, “It was hard, because my partner was always out shopping!” Well, these entrepreneurs are kids.

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Cathy S. Cruz