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Money Lessons for Kids Should Be Entertaining

For financial education to be successful, it has to capture children's attention. Here's an example of one program that works.

Every year during National Financial Literacy Month, I make it a point to go to a school or similar venue to see how kids are actually learning financial skills. And every year I’m impressed. Kids often get a bad rap about how little they know about money, and formal financial education in the schools is spotty at best. Yet I almost invariably encounter a group of students who are enthusiastic about learning, with the help of a dedicated teacher and an engaging program.

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This year’s standout was a game of Financial Soccer that I participated in at the Financial Literacy and Education Summit in Chicago (see the video -- click "Panel 2"), sponsored by Visa and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. One theme that cropped up throughout the conference was that entertainment is an effective way to capture kids’ attention.

That was certainly true of Financial Soccer, a video game developed by Visa to coincide with the 2010 World Cup (play it free at www.financialsoccer.com). In the game I watched, teams of students from Hinsdale South High School battled each other in a match that turned out to be as much of a nail-biter as a real game. The kids were divided into two teams -- in this case, USA and England -- and moved the ball down the field by answering multiple-choice questions about banking, credit, investing and other financial topics. The teams had celebrity coaches -- Cobi Jones and Brian McBride, former stars of the U.S. national soccer team -- plus a panel of adult experts (like me) they could use as a lifeline.

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The kids, who were taking classes in business and money management at school, didn’t need to call on us often. I was just as glad; the questions were tough. But the students called out the answers with surprising ease. They knew, for example, that a tariff was a tax on imports; that what you give up when choosing one investment over another is called “opportunity cost”; that inflation would be most harmful to older people on fixed incomes; that a person who believes stocks are headed down is called a bear (and not a goat); and that if you planned to carry a balance on a credit card, you should choose one with a low annual percentage rate.

My team, England, stumbled on a question about the definition of a secured loan and turned to their lifeline. Fortunately, we were able to tell them that a secured loan is one that requires collateral. It was a tight match, and even I found myself counting the seconds as the clock wound down. The final score: 2-1, in favor of England.

Afterward, the kids told me they liked the game because it was “fun and interactive.” Toughest for the students were questions about retirement and, significantly, college loans, which some of the younger students hadn’t learned about yet. They gave credit to their money-management classes, without which they conceded they wouldn’t have made much headway down the field. It was a great testimonial for teaching financial skills in school (I’d include a unit on student loans).

After the competition, the kids besieged Cobi and Brian for their autographs. But this was, after all, a conference on financial literacy, so they also besieged another guest, Rosie Rios, the Treasurer of the United States, who offered to autograph paper currency above her signature on each bill. Even the adults lined up.

Follow Janet’s updates at Twitter.com/JanetBodnar.

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