When money can’t be touched, how can we teach what it means to hold it?

Not long after I had my first child, I got her a piggy bank. I knew it would be important to her wellbeing to impart strategies to save for the future (lessons in delayed gratification, really), and the ceramic bank which sat on her dresser offered the conduit. The plump porcine, which had rosy cheeks, blue eyes and curly black eyelashes, became the depository for loose coins, dollar bills handed over from grandparents in exchange for goodbye kisses, and $2 bills that rarely circulate anymore. 

Eventually we picked up a hammer and the pig spilled her guts. Saving as an activity left the privacy of the home and became institutionalized thanks to the security offered by the FDIC. That meant we no longer discussed the value of saving every time one of us put our hands on a spare coin. Instead, save-versus-spend discussions followed birthdays and holidays, gift-giving occasions that lived on the calendar.  

This year, as our family relishes in the blessing of a first grandchild, I’ve been wondering how this little boy will learn to save for his future. My husband was quick to start a custodial account for our grandson at our bank. But I wonder if a piggy bank sitting on Wrigley’s dresser wouldn’t feel like a silly and outdated gesture? His parents rarely use cash and never write checks; every transaction is conducted digitally. If I bought him a piggy bank, I suspect the only thing it would collect is dust. As far as teaching a youngster about savings, I am certain there’s “an app for that” — but ewww. I want him to have access to tactile learning about money. Touching, counting, sorting and planning have been fundamental childhood learning activities for centuries.

Is it unavoidable as we age to yearn for the ways of the past?

This month, we bring you a special feature highlighting a unique collection of more than 1,000 toy banks – some fixed; some mechanical – which are housed at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Some of these banks date to the 1700s but most are from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The banks are colorful and clever and many could be considered pieces of folk art. And though some of them reflect the flawed social history of our country, all of them served a noble purpose: To teach and encourage savings. 

In her feature, Mara Gawarecki offers us a glimpse into this unusual collection, donated to the Institute by Katherine Kierland Herberger, as a reminder that economic lessons aimed at children have been an important focus for society for a very long time. It also serves to remind us that art can help us see our world and our problems from new perspectives. 

There are many virtues children must learn in life; thrift, patience, even generosity, are important lessons that can be taught through saving. Let’s hope that in the digital age, we can still find ways to impart such lessons daily in ways that are fun, artful, and on occasion, quirky.