In March, five-year-old Danny Kitchen made headlines when he spent over £1,700 in ten minutes in the iTunes app store, a bill that translates to $2,600 in U.S dollars. Yet the most notable part about his shopping spree isn’t the final bill or even that it was made possible by quickly obtaining his parents’ iTunes password; it’s the ease at which this can happen to any parent who lets their kids play games on a tablet or smartphone.
Barbara Chamberlain, project director at New Mexico State University’s Learning Games Labs, attributes incidents like this to the fact that kids don’t understand that digital money is real money, too. “You don’t see cash changing hands, and you lose that opportunity as a parent to say, ‘this is what I’m buying and why I’m buying it.’ I think it’s important to teach kids to be involved in that process,” she said. “The same discussions we’re having in the grocery store we should be having in the digital world, too.”
Consider summer the perfect time to change that.
The irony of Kitchen’s shopping spree is that not all app purchases are bad — in fact, there are some that can prove to be great educators when it comes to math and financial literacy. The lazy months of July and August mark the perfect time to start teaching your kids about money and using some of these apps. Just remember: the key to the learning process is to not depend on the apps to do all of the heavy lifting.
“Parent involvement is so important,” said Shira Lee Katz, director of digital media at Common Sense Media. “If the kids spend 15 minutes on an app, [they should also] spend 15 minutes with a parent who is reinforcing it and asking questions.”
Here’s a list of good apps to get you started. Note: There are none here that involve in-app purchases. Our sources say they can get expensive – fast.
Savings Spree: This app was enthusiastically recommended by our experts, and is just $5.99 in the iTunes app store. Built for kids ages 7 and up, it presents financial concepts — saving, spending, donating and investing — in a game show format. “It’s more fun than saving in real life,” Katz joked.
Toca Store: For ages 4 and up, this app lets kids pretend to be a shopkeeper, so it encourages money management lessons from an entrepreneurial angle. Kids can choose what items to sell in their store, how much they want to sell them for, and can invite friends to “buy” their items. It’s play money, not real money, so the app will only cost you the initial $2.99 iTunes purchase.
Freefall Money: If you want to teach your kids about coin denominations and adding them together, this is a great app to use. Kids are asked to fill a piggybank with a certain amount of money, and they then drag the coins on the screen into the piggybank. Great for ages 4 and up; $1.99 in the iTunes app store.
Kiddy Bank: This one helps with income and expense tracking, so it’s great for older kids who might be earning an allowance. It’s $0.99 in the iTunes app store.
One final suggestion: Your financial education can begin in the app store. Before you’ve even purchased an educational app give your kids a $25 iTunes gift card, and tell them to find one math app, one reading app, and that the rest can be “fun” apps. But before they can spend the gift card, ask them to explain what they want and why they want it. “You’re modeling a thoughtful approach to research and spending,” Chamberlain said. That’s something they’ll be able to use their entire lives.