How kids' books can teach us about economics : Planet Money All sorts of lessons (even about economics) can be learned from kids' books. On today's show, we visit an elementary school to try to teach third graders econ using some beloved childrens' classics. And, along the way, we learn a few things ourselves.

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The economics lessons in kids' books

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It's story time in Mandy Robek's (ph) third-grade class.

MANDY ROBEK: Alrighty, readers. Here we go.

BERAS: The kids' little faces light up.

ROBEK: So we're going to read today and just see, what do we think and discover about this story? "Pancakes, Pancakes!" by Eric Carle.

BERAS: In the story, there's this little boy, Jack, who wants pancakes, but his mom is busy, so he's got to do some of the work.

ROBEK: How can I help? asks Jack. We'll need some flour, she replied. Take a sickle and cut as much wheat as the donkey can carry. Then take it to the mill. The miller will grind it into flour.

BERAS: As Mrs. Robek's reading, it becomes pretty clear, at least to this economics reporter, this isn't just a book about a boy making pancakes. It's a story about taste and preferences, about specialization and trade. Mrs. Robek's been weaving econ into her lessons, so the kids get it, too.

ROBEK: Ariman (ph), what are you thinking?

ARIMAN: He was asking him to do it. Can you please grind this wheat into flour? Because I need it for a big pancake. He didn't just go and make it himself. He asked someone to do it for him.

ROBEK: I think you're right, Ariman. And so do you - who is he asking?

ARIMAN: The miller.

ROBEK: The miller, yes.

ARIMAN: So the miller is the producer, and Jack is the consumer.

BERAS: And at its core, this book is about land, labor, capital, entrepreneurship.

ROBEK: So, friends, do you know - have you ever heard the words four factors of production?


ROBEK: Yeah. It's kind of a really big - I kind of think of it as, like, a grown-up, older idea a little bit, right?

BERAS: The four factors of production - you know, the resources people use to create goods - so the wheat that Jack is cutting with that sickle? - that wheat is the land. When he goes to the miller and they beat the wheat with a flail, that action is labor.

ROBEK: And labor means work. Did Jack have to do any work...


ROBEK: ...In this story?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: He did the - all the hard work.


BERAS: By the time we get to the part of the story where Jack actually eats his pancakes, Ariman wants to add something to his earlier answer about Jack.

ARIMAN: He's a consumer, figuratively and literally, because he's getting it, and he's also eating it. And consuming means eating. So he's figuratively and literally a consumer.

ROBEK: He is, Ariman. You're right.

BERAS: "Pancakes, Pancakes!" is an early economics lesson. That's why Mandy Robek has used it to teach economics to her third graders. To her, we are all economists, even 8- and 9-year-olds.

ROBEK: All right. One, two, three...


BERAS: I'm Erika Beras.


BERAS: All kinds of real-world concepts that adults struggle with are woven into kid's books, including economics. Today on the show, what happens when PLANET MONEY tries to teach economics using children's books. We've got a frog and a toad, a spotted panther dog and a stubborn little girl, plus, credible commitment, exponential growth bias and the labor-market matching process and a real-life lesson about how hard it can be to keep the messiness of the world out of economics class.


BERAS: I had this idea. What if I called up a bunch of economists, asked them for kid's books that have economics lessons and then try to teach econ to kids? That's when I found this article Mandy Robek had written a few years ago for an education site about how she uses storybooks to teach economics to third graders. So I came to her with a proposal. Can PLANET MONEY take over your class for the day, bring some books, teach and learn economics from your kids? But first, I had to come up with a list of books. So I started making my calls. One of the first economists I heard back from was Erin Kaplan. She studies labor markets at the University of Southern California. Erin's pick - "Put Me In The Zoo" by Robert Lopshire.

ERIN KAPLAN: I don't remember the first time I read it because I have the copy I had when I was a kid. I think this is one of my favorite books when I was a kid. And I - honestly, I can't read it to my children without thinking about the labor market.

BERAS: And it's not just the labor market. It's the labor-market matching process - the two-way match in which employers and employees find what they're looking for in each other. "Put Me In The Zoo" is about this creature, Spot. He's like a cross between a dog and a panther. He's yellow, covered in spots. He visits the zoo, sees a zookeeper feeding a seal fish, a lion getting a haircut and a manicure. And he wants in. He wants that zoo life.

KAPLAN: In my mind, Spot is the worker. And the zoo is a place that would give him, you know, what he wants - some nice fish, or whatever it is that he eats, a home. He gets to be in the zoo. They take care of him. And in exchange, he offers entertainment to visitors.

BERAS: Spot is seeing the zoo as, like, his dream job, essentially.

KAPLAN: Exactly. Exactly.

BERAS: But the zoo doesn't want him. This boy and girl follow him out, and Spot shows them all the things he can do. He can juggle. His spots can change colors. He can project his spots on trees and balls and walls and even on the kids. It's amazing. And the kids see for him what he can't see.

KAPLAN: They point him to the circus. They say, this is a better match for you. And then, in the end, he realizes that this is the best place for him. And it's a good match.

BERAS: Do you think the labor market always works out that well?

KAPLAN: No, no. No.


KAPLAN: I don't.


BERAS: This sorting process, that match or mismatch between workers and employers, is one of the big things our economy hangs on. So Spot is looking at the zoo, but the zoo isn't hiring. And at the same time, the circus is hiring. They'd love someone with spot skills. But Spot wasn't even looking at the circus. That's the mismatch. And so remember the great resignation? Maybe that was just a whole bunch of people trying to solve their own personal mismatch. Just like Spot in "Put Me In The Zoo." I asked Erin if she thought Robert Lopshire was thinking about the labor market when he wrote it.

KAPLAN: I mean, maybe (laughter). I don't know what he was thinking. But I imagine that he probably wasn't thinking about, you know, unemployment and all of that - probably thinking just a little more about how we find our place in the world. But at the same time, you know, that's often one and the same.

BERAS: So with this and three other books, I headed to Mrs. Robek's class in the Columbus, Ohio, suburbs. The district gave us a few stipulations. Don't use the kids' last names, and no politics. Sure. Now, Mandy Robek's classroom is, like, this magical learning space. It's bright and sunny. There are a bunch of plants, a pet turtle, so many books. And everything seems so thoughtful and deliberate and centered around learning. The kids spent most of the day sitting on this blue rug. And when Mrs. Robek reads "Put Me In The Zoo"...


BERAS: The kids are into it.

ROBEK: (Reading) This is where I want to be. The circus is the place...



BERAS: At the start of the day, I just watched Mrs. Robek teach her class, how she interacted with the kids. But then, it was my turn to step to the front of the room. And I wanted to see what would happen if I started by going all-in on the econ.

Do you guys think about labor search and matching and macroeconomics?



UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: Definitely not.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: These are some grown-up words.

BERAS: Do you think about the mismatch in the labor market ever?



BERAS: One little girl was willing to take a shot.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #8: Well, it's, like, a little bit, like, you're, like, thinking - I once did it for so long...

BERAS: We've all been there. You start out talking about one thing, and the next thing you know, it's just words.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #8: It's - I don't - it's - sometimes, it's good to do it, but I sometimes get distracted with it.

BERAS: That's pretty similar. Yeah. Yeah. Seems right.

But when I asked my questions in a way that made sense to them, it turned out that even in their 8- and 9-year-old lives, some of them had already experienced their own version of mismatch.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #8: For a few years, I've been doing gymnastics. But when I was, like, on the lines to do something, I've always danced. And Mom watched my gymnastics. And she said, maybe I would be better at a dance studio.

BERAS: And then, on to the next book.

ROBEK: So, friends, Ms. Erika, she asked if she could be a guest reader in our room. And of course, I said, yes.

BERAS: I was going to read this time. I sat up in a little chair in front of the room and got out the book.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #8: Wait, I have that book.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #8: I have that book. My dad keeps it downstairs.

BERAS: Shel Silverstein's "Where The Sidewalk Ends."

(Reading) Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout would not take the garbage out. She'd scour the pots...

I was reading this book because of a recommendation from Damon Jones, an economist at the University of Chicago. He studies inequality.

DAMON JONES: (Reading) And though her parents would scream and shout, she simply would not take the garbage out. And so it piled up to the ceiling - coffee grounds, potato peelings.

BERAS: He picked this poem about a girl who refuses to take the garbage out. It piles up. It drives away her friends. When she goes to take it out, it's too late. Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout doesn't see how bad the pile of trash has gotten. It has grown exponentially. Damon says she has what is called in behavioral economics an exponential growth bias.

JONES: What that means is that it's easier for people to think about things that grow linearly. So every year, the garbage grows by two inches. That's a linear process. But if the garbage is growing proportionately - so, say, for example, there's bacteria multiplying, you know, recreating itself and growing proportionately, then it grows at a much faster rate, and over time, it grows increasingly faster.

BERAS: And so people with an exponential growth bias - they underestimate how much their debt is growing or how they're not saving enough for retirement, or they don't realize what's actually happening with that pile of trash.

JONES: Maybe she just thought, this is not going to get out of control.

BERAS: Yeah.

JONES: You know, it's a couple pizza crusts, a couple withered greens, soggy beans, tangerines. What could go wrong? And Sarah looks up, and somehow the whole country is engulfed in cream of wheat.

BERAS: Yes, that actually does happen. Another thing Damon says Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout suffers from in this poem - time inconsistency, or present bias. That's where you know there are things you need to do, but you'd rather do something else that gives you immediate gratification. And then you just keep saying, I'll just do it tomorrow. And then tomorrow comes, and you just keep saying, I'll just do it tomorrow.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #10: Why is there an ice...

BERAS: Back in Mrs. Robek's class, I kept reading.

(Reading) The garbage rolled on down the hall. It raised the roof. It broke the wall.


BERAS: Right?

None of the kids identified Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout's mistake as an exponential growth bias. But at the heart of most economic theories are some pretty intuitive ideas, ideas that even an 8-year-old can see.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #12: And maybe because she didn't really know the consequences, like, at the end, what would happen.

BERAS: Spot on. Now, if you're an 8-year-old economist, you can't just sit around and read books all day. Sometimes you got to get the wiggles out.

ROBEK: Stand up. Let's do a GoNoodle to stretch.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #13: I quit GoNoodle a month ago.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #15: I don't like GoNoodle.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #16: I cracked my leg.


BERAS: Our next big economic concept - credible commitment. It comes from a story called "Cookies" from the "Frog And Toad" books by Arnold Lobell, recommended by Fiona Scott Morton, Yale economist. Her specialty - competition economics. She's also a mom and a gift giver.

FIONA SCOTT MORTON: Oh, everyone I know who has a baby, I give them this. And then for my economist friends, I'll sometimes put a little note in the first page of the first book.

BERAS: What does the little note that you write say?

SCOTT MORTON: It just says, these are great stories for young economists.

BERAS: So "Cookies," the story, has two characters - a frog, a toad - best friends. Toad bakes cookies, brings them to Frog, and they start eating them. Then they realize they should probably stop.

SCOTT MORTON: And they agree with that. And then they have one more cookie. And then they decide, let's have one more very last cookie. And this goes on for a while.

BERAS: They try all these things to get themselves to stop. But Frog and Toad don't have the willpower. Their little short-run selves are winning out over their long-run selves. So they take the cookies outside and let the birds have them.

SCOTT MORTON: And the reason that this is economics is it's about a credible commitment. You want to eat the cookies, and you say you're not going to. But that's not a credible commitment. Everybody knows you want to eat the cookies and that you're going to eat the cookies. And the only way you can credibly commit not to eat the cookies is to do something irreversible. And when the birds eat the cookies, that's pretty much - that's irreversible. You're not getting those cookies back.

BERAS: When I brought Frog and Toad and their cookie problem to the kids, I was feeling pretty confident. By now I had learned, don't try to teach them big fancy econ words. Don't ask them overly complicated questions. Just talk to them.

What if they hid them in a drawer?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #18: They would just open - 'cause then they will just open the drawer and take them out and cut the string and open the box.

BERAS: What if they put it on a really high shelf like they did, but even higher than the one they put it on?




UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #21: They could get maybe a taller ladder. And I was thinking, instead of throwing them in the garbage or anything. I was thinking - I always do this with my M&Ms I give them to my mom and say, don't let me eat any more of these.

BERAS: And then I made a rookie teacher mistake.

Right. So what if you flushed them down the toilet?



UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #22: Your toilet will be clogged.

BERAS: I mentioned toilets to a roomful of third-graders.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #23: You can go through a sewer.


BERAS: Mrs. Robek had to rescue me.

ROBEK: Alrighty. Monarchs, Monarchs.


ROBEK: That was kind of a shocking thought.

BERAS: When I spoke with Fiona Scott Morton, she did not mention toilets as a real-world business example of credible commitment. Instead, she offered up the car company Tesla. About a decade ago, Tesla had to figure out how to get people to buy its electric cars. But it wasn't easy.

SCOTT MORTON: So Frog and Toad are busy eating the cookies. And that's a bit like Tesla selling the cars and giving the money to shareholders. And they say, you know, this really isn't the best for the long-run health of the business. We should be building charging stations to encourage consumers to buy more cars. But we can't help ourselves. These cookies are so delicious. These shareholder payments - dividend payments are so delicious. Let's just consume them.

BERAS: But to get people to buy the cars, Tesla had to say, we aren't going to take all this money as profit. We are going to use it to build thousands of charging stations all over the U.S. But if you're a potential customer, that's just talk.

SCOTT MORTON: And that's Frog and Toad wrapping their cookies in a box and hiding the box and tying the box with string. It doesn't really stop them from eating the cookies. And saying you're going to build charging stations and putting it in your plans and writing it down in your corporate strategy documents doesn't make you build the charging stations.

BERAS: The only thing that makes you build a charging station is actually building it. In the end, that's what Tesla did. They opened more than 1,500 stations across the country. That was a credible commitment. Reversible and irreversible choices, the games we play with ourselves to hold ourselves accountable, making decisions for the right now versus the long run - all very econ, all very real in the lives of Mandy Robek's third-graders.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Every Halloween, my parents say I can eat, like, as much Halloween candy as I want. But I always have to say, like, Aubrey (ph), don't eat that much. You're going to get sick.



BERAS: After the break, we learn how hard it is to keep politics and economics completely separate. Our classroom experiment, it's about to get real.


BERAS: By the time we get to our last book, I've spent about seven hours in this class near Columbus, Ohio. They have read a bunch of books. They've had a couple math lessons, recess. I know the kids now - you know, the girl who loves horses. There's the boy who lives for video games. Oh, and there's a girl who really doesn't like Jim (ph), but she really, really loves books. She's, like, my new best friend. And I've met lots of other people at Shale Meadows Elementary School - the principal, the vice principal, another teacher.

The whole day, a communications person from the district has been sitting in whenever we've been reading the econ books. She was the one who sent me the email requesting I avoid politics or even actually political undertones. I had sent her the list of books we were going to read. Already today, we've covered credible commitment, exponential growth bias, job matching in the labor market. And now it was time for our final book.

ROBEK: Friends, I can't wait to share with you another story that Ms. Erika brought with her.

BERAS: I had specifically saved this book for last. Three different economists had recommended it to me. And they said this book is about so much - preferences and class, open markets, entrepreneurship, discrimination and economic loss, some game theory in there, too. I had been building to this all day. I knew how to talk to the kids, how to ask them questions, how to get them to nerd out on econ. The book - "The Sneetches."

ROBEK: It is written by Dr. Seuss. So we know, if we read stories about Dr. Seuss, we can anticipate what?


ROBEK: Rhyming. Here we go.

(Reading) "The Sneetches." Now, the star-belly Sneetches had bellies with stars. The plain-belly Sneetches had none upon thars (ph).

BERAS: The star-bellied Sneetches live the good life, and the nonstarred Sneetches do not. The star-bellied Sneetches don't let the plain-bellied Sneetches come to their frankfurter roast, picnics or parties or marshmallow toasts.

ROBEK: (Reading) They kept them away, never let them come near. And that's how they treated them year after year.

KATIE: Oh, that's kind of mean.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: They got to fight back (ph).

ROBEK: Katie, what did you say? You said it felt mean.

KATIE: That's kind of mean because, like, just 'cause their bellies are plain and they don't have stars in it doesn't mean that they're not special.

ROBEK: Right. Doesn't mean they're not special.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: I kind of think...

ROBEK: Noah.

NOAH: It's almost like what happened back then, how people were treated...


NOAH: ...Like, disrespected...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: I think that book was made in that time.

NOAH: Like, white people disrespected Black people, but then, they might stand up in the book.

ROBEK: Oh, so we're - let's keep reading to find out if they do stand up maybe a little bit. So when you say stand up - get included?

NOAH: Yeah.

ROBEK: Yeah, that's what we're hoping for, right?

(Reading) Then, one day...

BERAS: There's a lot in this book. That's the beauty of kids' books. They're so simple and complex at the same time. And this is going so well. They're making connections, and I haven't even asked a question. Mandy Robek keeps reading "The Sneetches." And non-Sneetch Sylvester McMonkey McBean, he rolls into town. And he sees how much worse it is to be a Sneetch without a star than to be a Sneetch with the star.

ROBEK: (Reading) Then, quickly, Sylvester McMonkey McBean put together a very peculiar machine. And he said, you want stars like a star-belly Sneetch? My friends, you can have them for $3 each.

BERAS: He sees an opportunity to profit.

ROBEK: (Reading) Then, of course, old Sylvester McMonkey McBean invited them into his star-off machine. Then, of course, from then on, as you probably guessed, things really got into a horrible mess.

BERAS: At this point, Amanda Beeman, the communications person with the school district, stands up. She looks really upset. She waves her hands to get Mrs. Robek's attention to stop reading.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: They're scaring them because (ph)...

BEEMAN: Can I pause this?

ROBEK: Yeah.

BEEMAN: I don't know if I feel comfortable with book being one of the ones featured. I just feel like this isn't teaching anything about economics, and this is a little bit more about differences with race and everything like that. So do you mind, Mrs. Robek, if we pause this book.

BERAS: I mean, we have a list here of all the things this is about - preferences, open markets, economic loss.

BEEMAN: Yeah, I just don't think it might be appropriate for the third-grade class and for them to have a discussion around it. Are you OK with that?

ROBEK: I'm OK with that if that's your...

BEEMAN: OK. I just - as someone - I just don't think that this is going to be the discussion that we wanted to around economics. So I'm sorry. We're going to cut this one off.

BERAS: For the first time all day, the kids are really quiet. They sit still on the rug in their chairs, just staring up at the grown-ups in the room.

BEEMAN: So is there anything else that we can pivot to?

ROBEK: I have lots of books.

BERAS: Then, the kids start asking how the story ends. Amanda, the press person, addresses them in kid talk.

BEEMAN: Sometimes, when you don't feel comfortable, you got something in your belly, you got to just speak up about it, right?



UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: I don't even know what happens in the story.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: Yeah, me neither.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: Like, I want to read it (ph) - haven't ever read that.

BEEMAN: You know what? I think that's one that maybe we can ask, you know, with our parents at home.

BERAS: And that's it. Our final lesson abruptly ends. I pack up my things, say goodbye to the kids, and leave. One of the economists who recommended "The Sneetches" was Betsey Stevenson, a former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, professor at the University of Michigan. So after I got back from Ohio, I called her up and told her what happened.

BETSEY STEVENSON: Wow. I mean, gosh, there's so much there that makes me sad. I mean, as you said, many people recommended "The Sneetches" as having a lot of economics in it. I mean, it's just a beautiful amount of economics.

BERAS: Betsey says my plan to keep politics and economics completely separate was never really going to work - not in the context of the story.

STEVENSON: I think economics is political. You know, we go back to the economic founders and - remember, you know, Adam Smith was a pioneer in political economy, right? So the field is about thinking about society and economy together.

BERAS: And that's what we were doing with the third-graders in the class that day - looking at how economics exists in the larger world and in the smaller worlds these kids inhabit because economics doesn't exist in a silo. Neither does education. A couple days after our trip to the class, I reached back out to Amanda Beeman at the Olentangy local school district to thank her, but also to ask what happened. The district responded in an email saying, among other things, quote, "school districts across the nation are being scrutinized for book selections in our schools on both sides of the spectrum," end quote. This very climate, Betsey Stevenson says, can make it hard to teach and talk about these ideas at any level.

STEVENSON: I think it's indicative of the challenges we're currently facing in our economic system and how we're struggling to come together to talk about them.

BERAS: The school district's communication person, Amanda Beeman, wrote, quote, "when the book began addressing racism, segregation and discriminating behaviors, this was not the conversation we had prepared Mrs. Robek, the students or parents would take place. There may be some very important economics lessons in The Sneetches, but I did not feel that those lessons were the themes students were going to grasp at that point in the day or in the book," end quote. So final lesson in our experiment teaching econ to third-graders - keeping politics entirely out of economics - really, really hard.


BERAS: PLANET MONEY has a record label, Planet Money Records, and we have one song out there. The song is called "Inflation." It's sung by Earnest Jackson and Sugar Daddy and the Gumbo Roux. We're trying to make it a hit. Stream it wherever you listen to music.

Today's episode was produced by Emma Peaslee.


BERAS: It was engineered by Natasha Branch. It was edited by Keith Romer and fact-checked by Sierra Juarez. Our acting executive producer is Jess Jiang. Thanks to economists Mary Clare Peate, John Taylor and Jamie Wagner for their book suggestions. And many thanks to Mrs. Robek and her third-grade class - Euphadar (ph), Ariman, Ellie (ph), Kaveesh (ph), Noah, Journey (ph), Aubrey (ph), Gunjan (ph), Natila (ph), Maverick (ph), Zander (ph), Arian (ph), Anchou (ph), Vishvadatiya (ph), Freddie (ph), Katie, Gabe (ph) and Nick (ph). I'm Erika Beras. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.


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