If you’re teaching your kids about finances and not talking about inflation, debasement, and fiat currencies, you’re really missing out on a golden opportunity.

See what I did there?

For a hands-on exploration, get two quarters: one dated before 1965 and one after. The older coin is 90% silver and the newer coin is made of nickel and copper. Quarters come in many designs, but for this experiment, I like to use two Washington quarters so they are as similar as possible.

Ask kids to examine the quarters and make a compare/contrast chart. Then go make a cup of coffee and let them be for a while.

I have been impressed every time I’ve tried this. The kids will notice differences with all their senses — the silver quarter is not the same color, has a noticeable weight difference, makes a different noise when dropped on a hard surface, actually has a different smell, and though I strongly urge against this — as it is both a choking hazard and just super disgusting — I have had students who have licked the coins and told me they taste different. This is a great opportunity to encourage the use of colorful, descriptive language.

Without any set-up, kids will always conclude that the two coins are made of different materials. I then ask them to guess what materials and guess the value of each coin. This engages them wonderfully in a discussion of currency debasement, which will fit perfectly into your Roman Empire unit or your exploration of modern economics.

For an extension, they can conduct research on:

  • The value of 90%coins vs the melt value of base metal coins
  • Inflation since 1965. I like to have them use proportions to compare the cost of a gallon of gas in 1960, the cost of gas now, and the value of silver to determine whether gas is actually more expensive now or US money is just less valuable.
  • The different designs used on quarters and their symbolism
  • How and why the Romans debased their currency and the effect that had on the Empire’s economy
  • Why the US government debased our currency and the effect this had on inflation
  • Historical instances of hyperinflation, causes and effects
  • How coins are made and the history of the US mints

… and so on!


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