Emily Sachs - Community Affairs Intern
Published May 1, 2008 | May 2008 issue
Fifth grade students in Garrison, N.D., might not face much consumer temptation now, but it's only a few short years before the youngsters become credit-card-toting teens and, soon after, home- and car-buying adults.
The future financial risk isn't lost on the North Dakota Department of Securities (NDDS), which has thrown its support behind a unique traveling theater show that makes the concepts of saving and spending educational and entertaining. NDDS has sponsored the show in communities across the state, including Garrison.
"We're very concerned about our young people and how they are going to handle their money in the future," says Diane Kambeitz, investor education coordinator for NDDS.
The show, Mad About Money, has become the most in-demand production of The National Theatre for Children (NTC), a Minneapolis-based theater company that specializes in touring, in-school educational performances. The 40-minute production features two actors who perform four improvisational sketches that weave audience suggestions into pre-formatted scenarios about needs, wants, cash, credit, saving, and investing.
In one sketch, for instance, the actors portray a day in the life of one of their young audience members. They use the names of the student's favorite musician and best friend in the course of depicting the importance of developing a savings habit. The audience submits written suggestions prior to the performance and then waits eagerly to see what amusing reference comes up next.
"It's a time at which, if you can hit their funny bone, it works beautifully," says Ward Eames, president and founder of NTC. His company has created shows about everything from conservation and nutrition to the dangers of smoking. NTC developed the financial education production in 2003 after Eames read an article that said more people declare bankruptcy than graduate from college.
Since its debut in 2005, the show has been performed for more than 100,000 students across the country, including many in the Ninth Federal Reserve District. As the show travels from place to place, regional sponsors such as NDDS, Wachovia, Citibank, the State of Tennessee Securities Division, and the State of Washington Department of Financial Institutions underwrite the production costs and help determine new performance venues. Recently, support from sponsors enabled NTC to transport Mad About Money from the stage to the TV screen. A videotaped performance of the show was televised on the PBS affiliate in Seattle last December and is airing in additional markets in 2008.
Kambeitz first saw the show at a national conference for securities departments and invited NTC to perform at NDDS's Invest North Dakota Teachers Academy, a financial education training seminar for K-12 instructors. The performance sparked interest, and ten schools immediately signed up to request a visit from NTC. In the first year after Mad About Money debuted, NDDS brought the show to the western half of North Dakota. In 2006, the department sponsored performances in the eastern half of the state. Last fall, the show returned to the western half, including a return engagement at Bob Callies Elementary School in Garrison.
Callies Elementary Principal Michelle Fuller says that from the start of the first show, the 80 children in grades four through six were taken with the high-energy production.
"The investing part really got to me," Fuller says, "and I heard some of the kids talking about it."
Schools are inundated with requests from speakers, presenters, and performers. Mad About Money was ideal, however, because it was free to her school, came highly recommended by two of her teachers, and took only an hour of class time. Yet, in that hour, the children learned how to make the same kinds of high-stakes decisions about money that their parents make.
"It's important to plant that seed in elementary school, as much as we can. And the show presents it in a kid-friendly, easy-to-relate way," Fuller says.
The show's lessons are reinforced through colorful workbooks containing puzzles and exercises. The workbooks are distributed to every child in the audience. In North Dakota, where financial education is not a required part of the K-12 curriculum, the workbooks help sustain the message of the performance. According to NTC's figures, the workbooks go home with the children 92 percent of the time.
The show has become so popular, NTC has developed a sequel—Mad About Money II: Pay Yourself First—for schools where students have seen the first production already. The follow-up version features lessons on wages and deductions, investment risk, the impact of advertising, and the long-term consequences of financial choices.
In addition, the company is piloting a high school version called Crazy About Credit, says NTC Creative Director Jon Mikkelsen. However, it appears that the original target audience—elementary- and middle-school kids—benefits most from the show's lessons.
A study that looked at the effects of an early performance of Mad About Money in Chicago found that the youngest children in the audience—at that time, sixth graders—saw the most pronounced benefit, in terms of knowledge gained. Financial education researcher Lewis Mandell of the State University of New York at Buffalo suggests that younger students could benefit even more from the show,* a suggestion that is consistent with prevailing research about the capacity for learning in early childhood.
One hope for the Mad About Money shows is that the information will spread beyond the immediate audience. Perhaps children who attend an in-school performance will go home and ask whether their families have savings accounts, or even question their parents' reliance on credit cards. Callies Elementary teachers reported that several students went home on the day of the Mad About Money performance and told their parents about the program.
At the very least, educators hope the show will encourage kids to save their money rather than spend it on the next toy or gadget they see.
"Before they get a dollar in their pocket, we'd like them to think twice about how they'll spend it. That's a lesson we could all use," Fuller says.
For more information about The National Theatre for Children and Mad About Money, visit www.nationaltheatre.com.
Emily Sachs recently served as a Community Affairs intern at the Minneapolis Fed. She is pursuing a master's degree in public policy at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
* Lewis Mandell, Teaching Young Dogs Old Tricks: The Effectiveness of Financial Literacy Intervention on Pre-High School Grades. Presented at the Academy of Financial Services 2006 Annual Conference, Salt Lake City, October 11, 2006.