Grade 3-5

Pennies Make Cents

Updated: August 4 2015,

Students will review the history of trade before money and will investigate the history of money. Students will locate information about the first coin authorized by the United States and will learn about the penny.


If used as a companion lesson to "I Have No Money, Would You Take Wampum?" begin with a review of these concepts: barter, trade, and wampum as a medium of exchange

If used alone, introduce the following vocabulary words. Define, give illustrations, and record for reference: money, currency, barter, wampum, trade, exchange

Continue with discussiontrade

  • Think back to the early days of our continent before white men arrived. How did early peoples get the food and goods they were unable to produce themselves? [barter, trade]
  • What might have been some of the items traded? [tools, animals, extra foodstuffs, clothing, etc.]

You may want to visit this site for additional background information.

Learning Objectives

  • Review the history of trade before money.
  • Demonstrate how primitive forms of exchange were not always practical.
  • Investigate the history of money.
  • Locate information about the first coin authorized by the United States.

Resource List


Activity 1

Visit for a look into the past. The time line will give more information about what early people found useful in their trading transactions.

Divide the class into two large groups, one to demonstrate the past, the other to demonstrate trade in present times.

Subdivide the "Past" group, asking them to take situations from the web site to role play for the class.

Subdivide the "Present" group to create imaginary situations of trade and barter with some of their own possessions or objects found in the classroom or at home. For example, pencils, books, jackets, keyrings, CDs, baseball cards, posters, stuffed animals, etc. Request that the "Present" group create at least two trade situations in which the trade heavily favors one side or the other. Set up another where the buyer needs "change" but none is available.

Coins were needed in trading situations because at times goods and services alone could not satisfy both parties.

Activity 2

Visit A Brief History of the U.S. Cent to learn about the first currency of any kind to be made in the United States. The Penny Facts introduction and "Brief History of the Penny" are recommended segments.

coinsDiscuss information found there. Ask if students recognize names of famous people from American history mentioned in the article.

Distribute pennies from the jar and magnifying glasses to student desks to allow students an opportunity for a "close look" at this common coin. Ask them to share details that they have never seen. List these findings on a chart. Ask pairs or small groups to sort their coins: by date, by mint locations, by condition, etc. Challenge students to think of more ways to sort their coins.

Activity 3

The last web site, Penny Details , gives students further details about the common penny that are not well known.

Share these ideas in discussion.

Activity 4

Close with the story (a Newberry Honor Book) Hundred Penny Box by Sharon Bell Mathis, Puffin Books, New York, l975. If the book is too long or not available, share this summary…

100 year old great-great Aunt Dew (for Dewbet Thomas) lived with Michael and his family. Aunt Dew had a scratched wooden box filled with pennies. Michael used to sit at the foot of Aunt Dew's rocking chair listening to her sing.

"Can we play with the hundred penny box?" he'd ask.

The box contained a penny for each year of Aunt Dew's life. Each coin there represented an event in her hundred years. She'd select one, check the date, and recall a special event that had happened during that year. Michael loved the stories and the box that held them, but Michael's mother seemed always to want to get rid of Aunt Dew's old possessions. Michael suggested to Aunt Dew that they find a new container.

"Maybe you need something better than the old cracked up, wacky, dacky box with the top broken," he'd say.

Aunt Dew always refused, "Them's my years in that box," she'd reply. "That's me in that box."



Pennies do make cents.

Extension Activity

  1. Ask students to bring a penny from home with a story from their past. If possible, the date on the penny could be the same, or nearly the same, as the time of the happening. (Example: birthdays, learning to swim or ride a bike, getting a new pet, etc.) Stories can be shared with the class.
  2. Ask an interested group to research the story of how school children contributed pennies and small coins to help build the base for the Statue of Liberty after it was given to the United States by France.