Using humor and fiction to teach market basics to middle schoolers

As I recently read Gary Paulsen's book Lawn Boy , memories of my early working days came rushing back. I made 25¢ an hour at my first job. Yep, I babysat. I was 11 when Dr. and Mrs. Vincent Moore agreed to let me take care of their really cute son and daughter. I could hop my back fence and cut through my neighbor's yard to theirs in under two minutes. Once I had proven that their kids were safe in my care, I was booked solid—a few hours after school or in the early evening as well as most Friday and Saturday nights. The disposable income was sweet, literally. I saved some of my earnings, but spent most of it on penny candy from King's Way Pharmacy's vast assortment. (I still have the cavities as proof of my hard-core consumption of Now and Later's, Mary Jane's, and Bazooka bubble gum, although my lead fillings have been replaced by the more aesthetically appealing enamel ones. You have to love dental insurance! And yes, you can call me vain.)

When my daughter Maggie, a sophomore at Lake Forest College, called this fall to tell me she had made $30 an hour babysitting the night before, I admit thinking that those wages would have bought me a mountain of that yummy penny candy—this, despite the fact that I understand about inflation and real wages! Anyway, knowing what I learned later about the magic of compounding interest, the power of time, and an average rate of return as well as portfolio diversification, I rue the days—and money—I spent savoring those sweets.

Lawn Boy is a delightful tale about the power of entrepreneurship, capitalism, and investing, and an excellent tool for introducing young learners to these principles. Start with an enterprising 12-year-old boy looking for a way to make some cash to fix his 10-speed and add an old riding lawn mower and a down-on-his-luck day-trading stockbroker named Arnold, and you have the perfect recipe for a zany yet immensely lucrative venture. Oh, and throw in a prizefighter named Joey Pow for some spice.

Even though many of the wildly successful investments Arnold makes would be highly improbable in the real world, the story serves as a lesson in market basics. The factors of production, supply, demand, division of labor, specialization, stocks, stock splits, rate of return, and diversification are just a few of the terms that teachers can explore with their students.

Order a classroom set of the Kansas City Fed's Fifty Nifty Economic Concept Cards and print their Core Concept Cards to create a word wall featuring key terms from the story. Explore these web pages for activities and puzzle generators. The Cleveland Fed's Great Minds Think: A Kid's Guide to Money  is a disposable workbook designed to help middle school students discover the basics of budgeting, saving, and spending. The Boston Fed's ShowBusiness: The Economic$ of Entertainment has two online learning activities designed to help teach fundamental economic concepts.

Check out this online resource from TheMint (a cooperative effort of the Northwestern Mutual Foundation and the National Council on Economic Education) that covers the basics of spending, saving, earning, and giving. Use the Atlanta Fed's interactive lesson Investment Investigator to teach your students about risk, return on investment, and different vehicles for investing. Introduce your students to investing basics by playing The Stock Market Game.

By Amy Hennessy, economic and financial education specialist, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
February 14, 2012