A Pre-K teacher friend does a Circle Time activity wherein each child chooses either a nickel or a penny with which to buy a pretend donut. Inevitably, she says, they all pick the penny. Why? Because it's shinier!
Give a three year old the choice between a nickel and a dime, and he will choose the nickel. Why? Because it's bigger!
As is the case with all learning in typically growing children, there is a developmental component to a child's understanding of money. It starts with simply knowing that money is something of interest. Grown-ups have it, and so I want it!
Very early on, young children begin to notice everything that Mommy and Daddy do. That includes using money. While more and more people use credit cards for the majority of their transactions, coins and bills still have the power and are the foundation of the lesson. Your child watches you slip a quarter into the parking meter, a nickel into the gumball machine, hand a dollar to the man at the Farmer's Market in exchange for a basket of strawberries. And so begins the young child's first lessons about money and in economics, for that matter.
But learning about money is part of learning math. It comes with the basic comprehension of numbers and quantity. Have you ever watched a two year old count? Parents love to showcase their brilliant child's (especially that first born!) ability to flawlessly count to 10. He counts all 7 items on a table, all the way to 10. He does it with 5 items, with 13 items, or just 2, and they all come out to 10! The child has memorized the sequence; he is not actually counting. (But it still gives us bragging rights!)
All this is to say that it is unreasonable to expect a preschooler to understand money. It is not a developmentally appropriate lesson, not yet.
There are money activities and lessons , however, that are age appropriate for the preschool age child.
More information about allowances and teaching older children the value of money can be found in Betsy Brown Braun's book You're Not the Boss of Me.
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