(Side note: I have always used real coins with my students because fake coins just aren't the same. Fake coins cost more than using real ones - so why on earth would I spend more to use something less useful?! Worried they'll be stolen? In all my years teaching, I had one single dollar bill disappear from my first grade classroom one time.) Use the real thing!
#1 Start simple, start early, repeat often
Counting mixed coins is a pretty complex task - children have to identify each coin, know it's value, start counting from the largest denomination, count by 25, 10, 5 and 1, and be able to count on while switching between those counting methods. For most counting tasks our children will have encountered, we;ve expect them to count 1 item for each number, practicing 1-1 correspondence. With mixed coins, they really need a whole new set of skills! So what is a teacher (or parent) to do?
We break it down into baby steps, and we take it slowly. We start by teaching our children to identify coins and their value. When I still had my preschool (yes, I did say start early!) I had a stack of 3 oz plastic cups, each containing a penny, a nickel, a dime and a quarter. Part of our daily routine was singing and dancing, and I often included a money song, such as Show Me The Money, by Jack Hartman and Money Money Money by Rhonda Crigger. As each song began the children would spread the coins on one flat hand, so that they could point to each coin as it was named in the song.
As simple as this sounds, the children LOVED it - they got to hold REAL money! Frequent repetition meant the children had lots of chances to master the skill, and singing about identifying each coin helped to cement the knowledge in their minds.
#2 Skip counting is essential!
Way back in the olden days, when I was student teaching, my mentor teacher was AMAZING. One of the tricks I learned from her was to teach skip counting from the first day of school, and to modulate my voice differently for each kind of skip counting (2, 5, 10, 25). She incorporated skip counting into our calendar or circle time, and there were movements to go along with each one. Movement helps many children learn, and helps keep the pulse rate up a little, getting oxygen to the brain for maximum learning.
When we counted by 2, we all held up 2 fingers on each hand, and alternated extending the arms as we skip counted to 20. To count by 5 we alternated raising left and right hands (or feet!) with five fingers (or toes) extended...
#3 Have fun with it!
To really grasp any new concept, we need to play around with it for a while. Another favorite part of our day was our math play time. After lunch each day, after we cleared the tables, I put out a variety of manipulatives for the children to explore. We sorted, measured, organized, graphed, built shapes - and yes, you guessed it, worked with money. Here's one of the children sorting coins.
An even easier way to sort is to have a pile of pennies and a pile of "not pennies" - a concept you can apply to any coin, but also to shapes, toy animals, blocks... almost anything.
As a parent I found some other ways of making money concepts fun, and I often recommended these to parents of my students too. Try "count it and keep it" for starters. At the end of the day you probably have some coins in your purse or your pocket. Pull them out, and choose some that you are fairly certain your child can either identify or count - you want them to win at this game! Show them the coins, and let them know that if they can count it, they can keep it. They'll be begging to play this game every day, and mastering a difficult skill as they do! Start simple (see trick #1) with just pennies, then just nickels, or just dimes. When they have mastered counting each kind of coin, slowly increase the difficulty by mixing nickels and pennies, helping them to count the highest denomination first and the lower ones next. I like to let the children master counting 2 kinds of coins in all the possible variations before moving on to 3 and finally all 4 kinds of coins together.
To keep my boys on their toes during summer break, I put together some super simple coin counting activities for them to do each day. When they were in the younger grades, I put mixed coins in a film canister (do you even remember those?!) for them to count each day, just like the "count it keep it" game above. As they got older and more skilled, I had to up the ante - and not only by putting more and more coins in each box. I would have quickly gone broke, they were great coin counters!
Our next game was "What have I got?" Again, I would get a small pile of coins, but this time I did the counting, and they had to figure out what I had. I would give just 2 clues: how many coins I had, and the total value of them. For example, if I have 9 coins worth 53 cents, what have I got? (4 dimes, 2 nickels, 3 pennies) If they could figure it out, they got to keep it. Guess whose children were really good at figuring it out? One of the beautiful things about this game was that I would give this type of clues to my oldest son, who had to figure it out, and he then put those coins in a small container for his younger brother to count. He loved the responsibility of setting it up for his brother (or maybe he just liked that he could do something his brother couldn't), and I really liked having his help.
Another way to take this kind of play up a notch is to have children figure out change from $1. In my classroom I had some toy grocery items, which I marked with imaginary prices, and the children had to figure out how much change they should get if they "bought" it with $1. It doesn't sound so difficult, but it's a completely different way of thinking about money. If you "buy" a 37 cent item, you then have to count on with pennies to get to 40 cents, a dime to get to 50 cents, and quarters to make it to $1. (You may also have a super smart kiddo who figures 100 cents - 37 cents = 63 cents, and then counts out the coins that way!)
#4 Use other resources if you need to.
Of course, there are times when we need help to teach these skills to our children, so I've also made some money counting games available in my TpT store. The simplest one is:
Next up is this cool pirate themed game, because everyone knows buccaneers love treasure!
For children who are ready for a little more, Bye-Bye Summer Slide includes counting cards for mixed coins up to 75 cents, and also includes game style review of sight words, addition and subtraction, telling time and much more! I designed this resource to be reproduced and sent home with children to review during the summer, so everything is included in b&w, but the coin pages are also included in color.