While teaching economics for over 30 years, I used to think about how to introduce the discipline to students in primary grades. Through the miracle of search engines, I have found that others have been writing about this since the 1960s and especially from the 1990s. So, I claim no originality for the idea but merely offer some views on it.
Economics is taught in some high schools and from first year university. Initially, the concepts and approach may be new to students, but the subject matter is very familiar to them. It concerns the way we live and organize our lives. With each day having 24 hours, choice has to be made as to what to do and how to do it. Life requires weighing alternatives. Children as well as adults do it automatically as they see the constraints facing them.
Introducing the concepts used in economics could be done at an early age, making it easier to discuss the discipline more formally to students in high school and university. Failure to do so in my view means losing an opportunity to improve public understanding of economic issues.
One place to review past work is a 2007 paper by Rodgers, Hawthorne and Wheeler, “Teaching Economics through Children’s Literature in the Primary Grades,” at http://econkids.rutgers.edu/images/pdf/final_draft_reading_teacher.pdf
Discussing the content of children’s stories is one way of connecting children to economic concepts like scarcity, choice, opportunity cost, prices, wages, technology, labour, capital, competition, monopoly and opportunistic behavior. The last is found in how the fox lures Jemima Puddleduck to his house in the woods and how Kep the Collie Dog provides a police-like protection service. Stories are often about choices made and paths taken with the possibility of considering what the alternatives were.
Aside from literature, children become familiar with their surroundings both in their home, school and places they visit. Situations can give rise to questions about what is happening, what different people are doing, why and how. The answers and comments are often interesting as children see things and ask questions that often do not occur to adults. Children have not yet become programmed in the way adults are to think in along certain lines. Some of the toughest questions can come from first year economics students who see concepts in different ways.
Consider economics in the home – what is delivered to the home and what is taken from it? A list of things received might include the following: water, gas, electricity, oil, telephone, internet, cable and satellite services, newspapers, mail, hand-delivered fliers and so on. Things taken from the house include garbage, waste water and sewage. With these familiar examples, questions can be raised about who supplies the good or service, how they are paid for, why some people pay more than others, why some have gas and others oil heating and so on. Any text that introduced these topics to children would benefit enormously by being illustrated. Richard Scarry already does this with “What people Do All Day” and there are other such books that provide excellent texts for discussing economic ideas.
Comparing where people live is another way of introducing economic issues. The house and the apartment block are two examples of housing with different economic features. Each may be owned or rented – what’s the difference, what are the costs of each, how do externalities arise such as coping with noise? Rural versus urban living provides examples of a wide range of economic issues such as different types of occupations, how people train for these, what type of work is done, who they work for and how unemployment is dealt with. I use to bore my children by asking whether they thought a particular job was boring or interesting and why.
Receiving and spending a child’s allowance illustrates a wide range of monetary and other economic phenomena such as the circular flow of income and expenditure, the role of banks and ATMs, credit cards, decision making and opportunity cost. The costs of operating a mobile phone and buying items on the internet are activities that will receive close attention by children.
I would venture to say that any activity, fact or fiction can be used to tease out the economic dimensions of a situation if the teacher knows what to look for, and this does not require a graduate degree in the discipline. There is really no need for new textbooks. Existing story and other books together with shopping and vacation trips provide teaching material. Newspaper and magazine stories also contain readily available content – some economics professors have been known to teach from the headlines of the daily papers and some write columns in the papers. What you can discuss with a six year old will be different from a twelve year old, but there is no shortage of material for all ages.
I suspect that it is easier to discuss with children concepts and relationships in microeconomics than in macroeconomics. The intricacies of national accounting, GDP and money supply are more difficult to discuss than the prices of food and movies. Unemployment, inflation, the exchange rate, exports and imports can be explained in terms of things children are familiar with, but how all of these interact and affect our lives is not well explained by macroeconomists today.
In sum, I think the discipline would do itself and perhaps society a favour by injecting itself into the curriculum in the primary grades. With the present economic turmoil, this might be a good time to make a start.