By Sarah Wassner — February 01, 2002 1 min read

Play Money

Watch out, Bill Gates—there’s a new crop of rising moguls in town. And while they aren’t ready to take over any Fortune 500 companies just yet, the students of Clear Lake Elementary in Skagit County, Washington, are right on the money when it comes to grasping basic business concepts. That’s because, twice a year, on “Market Day,” their school transforms into a miniature town center, and they become shopkeepers, bankers, and consumers.

“We play Market Day so children can learn about handling money and, at the same time, developmentally improve through the years,” explains the event’s chief coordinator, Kathryn Peck, who teaches a combined 5th and 6th grade class at Clear Lake. The activity’s been a tradition since 1993, when Peck’s former colleague, Betsy Senff, got her 1st and 2nd graders to sell objects at school to improve their counting skills. Two years later, Peck took over and expanded the project, adding other business activities to the mix and bringing her colleagues on board.

These days, students in all grades participate, hawking everything from soup (homemade) to nuts (bagged walnuts) to their peers, parents, and teachers. Peck’s class runs the bank. Using fake money, they dole out loans and sell required business licenses. To prepare kids for their duties, Peck teaches a unit on “life math,” in which they learn about checkbooks and bank accounts and even follow stocks.

Starting two weeks before Market Day, young vendors meet with bankers to calculate the fees that will be levied on their goods. Products that are made with water (such as papier-mâché masks), sugar (say, lemonade), or electricity (anything baked, for example) are heavily taxed since, as Peck observes, “those are what sells.” Each year, some products prove more popular than others—at the most recent event, patisserie-inspired cookies were hot sellers. With prices ranging from $3 to $10, some entrepreneurs manage to snag a profit in pretend money. Others don’t, but everybody learns.

Peck, whose background is in firefighting, not finance (before becoming a teacher in 1990, she was a park ranger), admits that at one time, she “didn’t even know how to read stocks, let alone teach about them.” But, she notes, the event’s about more than money. “On Market Day, children are the leaders, and adults follow,” she says. “They become empowered.”