What are toys teaching kids about money?

Last year, I took some photos of my mother’s toy cash register for a blog post. Around the same time, a couple of our friends came to stay with their young daughter. She had a toy cash register of her own (which I also photographed). The two toys looked pretty similar (the newer version had an electronic display, and came with a paper ‘credit card’).

The role of artefacts like games in language development has long been an interest of mine. When I saw these two cash registers, I became interested in the role of toys and games in financial literacy.

As the last post showed, learning about money starts at home. According to parents.com, ‘Whether or not your child’s idea of a fun toy is a cash register and fake coins, the fact remains that as a parent, it’s your job to talk about financial responsibility with your kid’.

But what are toys, like cash registers and fake coins, teaching kids about money?

Toys are important in children’s development because, as Brice Heath, author of Words at Work and Play explains, they allow children to engage in sociodramatic play. Kids can take on roles such as ‘parent’ or ‘boss’, and mimic the kinds of talk they hear in everyday life.

In order to find out what messages toys and games are sending kids about money, I examined the online catalogue of one of the world’s largest toy retailers. I found money-related items for kids of all age groups, ranging from Pirate Party favous for kids aged 12 months and up, to Game of Thrones-themed Monopoly game for the over 18s. Most were for children aged around 8-10, roughly the age most parents appear to start talking to their children about money. Over a third were ‘educational’ toys, and around a fifth ‘games’.

Here’s what 8 of these toys and games have to say about money:

1. Cash registers – cash or credit?

I found 28 variations on the iconic cash register and fake coins, as well as the Dream Dazzlers Glam on the Go Playset, featuring a sparkly pink and purple handbag and plastic gem-encrusted accessories. The set comes with fake money and a pink credit card, all of which have the word ‘dream’ on them.

While many of the registers come with a credit card, without a readout of the balance, it may be difficult for children to understand the connection between spending and balance.

2. Piggy banks – money can grow

Money banks, or ‘piggy banks‘ are a popular gift for newborns and often one of a child’s first money-related belongings. From the Fashion Accessory Plush Piggy Bank to the Pearhead College Fund Piggy Bank in Grey, described as the ‘perfect gift for baby’, there are many on offer.

From Toy Story’s Hamm, to their use in bank advertisements, piggy banks are a common symbol of saving. The term ‘piggy bank’ even has a place in economic commentary, with Dictionary.com listing examples such as ‘According to the feds, Price used the bank as, well, a piggy bank’, or ‘Portland GE has $25 million in the company’s piggy bank’.

The Stephen Joseph Spend, Save & Share Banks describe their products as teaching kids about money management. Investopedia recommends banks of this style, with three separate sections, and the website threejars.com, but also recommends that teens add a fourth category: invest.

There are also piggy banks for adults, as Claudia Hammond points out. ‘Pots of Dreams’, are marketed towards men (for goals like sports cars, beer, or somewhat worryingly, retirement), and women (also stereotypically pampering, shoes, and handbags).

3. The tooth fairy – mythical source of bounty, or reward for good health?

The Toothy Fairy tradition of slipping a small amount of money under the pillow of a child who has lost a tooth has also inspired a range of toys. There is the Tooth Fairy Pouch, Real Tooth Fairies dolls, and Tug, who comes with a book about losing teeth. Personalised tooth pillows are another popular gift for small children. According to the American Heritage Idioms Dictionary, the term ‘tooth fairy’ popularly refers to ‘A mythical source of bounty, as in So who will finance this venture – the tooth fairy?

But there is another narrative parents can give their children instead. Parenting author Vicky Lansky recommends parents tell their children the tooth fairy pays more for teeth in good condition. While adults might not receive monetary rewards for good health practices, taking care of your teeth can result in fewer trips to the dentist. Some health insurance companies even offer incentives to policy holders who, for example, engage in monitored exercise.

4. Monopoly – don’t budget with monopoly money

More than half of the games examined were versions of Monopoly or were or Monopolyrelated. In the Monopoly ‘Jackpot’ game, ‘players spin for the chance to win it all’. Players in version this attempt to hold on to the most cash when the bank inevitably ‘goes bust’. In the classic Monopoly, currency is theoretically unlimited. Players may use note paper instead of money, or even purchase additional money. You can buy a little over $20,000 worth of Monopoly Money for $3.99 on eBay.

Perhaps this is an opportunity to introduce the kids to the fragility of the banking system, or the notion of quantative easing? (Maybe this sounds a little far-fetched, but I remember my mother explaining why printing money in huge quantities simply doesn’t work, which helped me understand the nature of money as a child).

‘Monopoly money’ has entered our vocabulary as a way of referring to colourful currencies (as featured in the lyrics of Weird Al Yankovic’s Canadian Idiot), and money that is not (or is used as if it is not) worth much. Popular personal finance blogs such as You Need a Budget describe budgets with fudged numbers as budgeting with ‘monopoly money’. Something we should all avoid!

5. Game of Life – life is a game, money is the score

Like Monopoly, the Game of Life is also available in multiple editions. In the 1970s and 80s, car models and prices were updated. In the 90s, rewards for good behaviour were introduced, and the role of chance was reduced in the 2000s.

A commercial for The Game of Life in the 1960s begins with children making statements such as ‘I made $50,00 in the stock market today’. ‘I went to the poor farm’ says another. The jingle promises ‘You will learn about life / When you play the Game of life’. Later commercials depict families complaining about payments or lamenting their decisions not to take out insurance. I often heard the jingle ‘Go to school / Get a job that’s cool! / Get lucky in the game of life’ during my childhood years.

6. The (last) person with the (most) money wins

Even when money isn’t the central theme, it’s often a form of scoring in board games. This is the case in games based on TV shows like Family Feud or Jeopardy.

The same appears true of Don’t Tip the Waiter. This game relies on the double meaning of ‘tip’ as to knock something over, and to give a gratuity. If you tip the waiter over physically, you have to pay a tip. As the description states, ‘The last person with money wins the game’.

7. Money is obtained through luck

Several games involved gambling – Ideal Horse Race ‘lets your child experience a day at the races!… Whoever has the most money at the end of the game wins!’

Las Vegas Strategy Game invites you to ‘Take your chances at six Las Vegas casinos all at the same time… The player with the most money at the end of four rounds is the winner’.

Michigan Rummy is ‘A “top of the line” version of the classic rummy card and betting game’.

Shut the Box does not involve gambling in the actual gameplay. However, the description suggests it is ‘popular as a wagering game when all players ante up a dollar or more and the winner takes the pot’.

8. Money is control

Finally, some games utilised money, but defined winning in ways other than simply having the most money. Four games produced by Mayfair Games, and For Crown or Kingdom, all enable players to use money as a tool to invest in railroad construction, or to control land. These games claim to reward efficiency over the pursuit of money for the sake of money.

8 Money Messages Kids Can Learn From ToysIn the next post, we’ll look at the lessons apps – both paid and free – might be teaching kids about money.

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Today’s featured image is of some fancy die!

Where toys and games did you most enjoy as a kid?
If you have kids, do you play games with them?
Let me know in the comments!

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9 thoughts on “What are toys teaching kids about money?

  1. Very thought provoking the pink toy credit card with dream on it is revolting.

    Money obviously is a fact of life, very insidilous messages being sent out by toy companies. Great article.

    1. Playing shop was one of my favourites as a kid Amber! Again, it makes me wonder what things will be like in a generation or two… it was easy to pretend to work at Blockbuster, but Netflix is another story… playing restaurant is one thing, but zipping around as a delivery guy? Will be interesting to see what the future of both work and play is. This might be the topic for another post!

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