During the second episode of Cha-Ching, a cartoon aiming to be the Schoolhouse Rock! of financial literacy, a young kid named Zul watches an ad for a remote control car on TV and decides he wants one. But when he asks his parents to get it for him, they say no. He has to somehow earn the money instead.
For most kids, this begs an obvious question: Why? After all, for them, money can be a pretty abstract thing—parents have it, kids don’t—but there’s little explanation as to where it comes from and what limits it.
Cue the omniscient rock-and-roll narrator, who breaks into song, leading Zul through the sort of only-in-cartoons highlight reel that first annotates every day items around the house with price tags, then shows his parents going to work to receive a paycheck with its own dollar signs, and brings it all home with some catchy verses. “I see an add on the TV / I want one of those cars in green / I see a tag on the box now / It reminds me that things ain’t free.” Lest viewers lose focus, the lesson is re-stated often in the chorus: “It’s got to be earned!” (That’s also the title of the episode.)
Not-so-spoiler alert: Zul totally earns the car by selling people apples already growing in his backyard. But the power of earning is just one economic principle being tackled in Cha-Ching. Each three-minute episode is arranged around one of four key themes: earn, save, spend, and donate. The goal, according to creator Alice Wilder, is to teach kids new ways to think about money, which will hopefully better prepare them for the future.
“Kids think they know certain things, but they don’t fully understand them because they don’t fully see them,” says Wilder, who is known for developing shows like Nickelodeon’s Blues Clues, which has been proven to develop critical thinking skill for kindergarten readiness, and PBS’s Super Why!, which helps address literacy issues for children with learning gaps. The issue is that most children are literal-minded, which makes it hard to grasp abstract ideas. “And for me as an educator, the beauty of media is that you can take concepts that are really invisible and make them visible,” she says.
In this case, however, Cha-Ching isn’t airing on a network. It’s part of a $3 million effort called the Cha-Ching Money Smart Kids program, which is now rolling out for free online and in grade-school classrooms around the country, complete with additional activity guides so parents can participate. The effort was developed by the Jackson Charitable Foundation to advance financial knowledge in partnership with interactive content provider Discovery Education and Junior Achievement USA, which works with schools to develop and deliver similar-themed teachings.
Through those partners, the foundation projects being able to reach roughly 1 million kids this year alone. To attract attention, they’re airing a public service announcement on the Discovery Family channel to re-direct viewers to available web materials. Junior Achievement is incorporating the effort directly into the third-grade curriculum at 15,000 schools.
If today’s youngsters are anything like the generation before them, they could certainly use some money management lessons. Baby Boomers are facing a retirement crisis, in part because they lived through an era where defined pension plans disappeared, only to underinvest in their individual 401Ks. “For the average American family social security only replaces 40% of their pre-retirement income,” says Barry Stowe, board chair at Jackson Charitable Foundation. “Almost anybody will tell you that you need to plan such that you are replacing at least 70% of your pre-retirement income in order to maintain a reasonable lifestyle. A huge chunk of Americans are not going to be able to do that.”
While Stowe says that Jackson has a handful of programs designed to address that immediate disparity he decided it’d be far more efficient in the long term to correct the thinking behind it, by reaching the next generation before they make such mistakes. “There is a new generation coming up and maybe we can get to some of these kids so that they will start doing things properly from the very beginning and won’t end up in this mess,” he says. “So that’s really the mindset. Let’s get to them. Let’s make sure that this never happens again.”
Cha-Ching has already seen success in Asia, where the foundation designed a different version to address issues of the rising middle class in the region. Those shows were longer and aired on the Cartoon Network in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Taiwan. All told, it reached 34 million households. There was also a school component, which reached 250,000 kids directly.
Of course, there’s a difference between being exposed to something and actually retaining it. To be effective, such programs have to be designed in a way that creates measurable change, something the U.S. school-based programs will be able to track by watching student’s in-classroom learning curves. That’s where Wilder comes in. She has a doctorate in educational psychology from Teachers College at Columbia University that includes the study of instructional systems design thinking—basically the science of how lessons can be designed in a way that allows kids to learn and retain them.
In her view, each episode had to be reverse engineered. The idea was to start with a takeaway in mind and then build toward it. “What do we want the impact of this story to be on kids’ lives?” she asks. “Once we know [that], we can go and design stories.” To that end, before ever designing the show Wilder first interviewed hundreds of kids to figure out their existing preconceptions around money and what questions they often struggled with. That helped shape her earn, save, spend, and donate framework, with each principle anchoring two episodes in the 12 part series.
But this isn’t really a financial advice cartoon. The lessons themselves are extremely broad, seeking to boost understanding about things like trade-offs and opportunity cost, rather than offering a clear path to riches and retirement. That includes differentiating between things like needs and wants, learning about the power of delayed gratification, and thinking about what-if scenarios (The titles for episodes 5 and 6: “Saving For Success” and “Just in Case”).
“What you do with your money is a personal experience, so it was never our intention to put our values on kids or families,” says Wilder. “It was always our intention to give kids and families the information that they need in order to fulfill their own values and goals”—and to provide conversation starters for adults. “Parents have a lot of these thoughts and ideas in their heads but they don’t necessarily know that that they need to talk aloud in order for kids to think about or the choices that they make,” she adds.
Catchy educational kids’ programming can be great at bridging that gap. In fact, new research by economists with Wellesley College and University of Maryland shows that, for decades, kids who watched Sesame Street–especially those in low-income homes–ended up more prepared for school than those who didn’t. (Exposure rates can be mapped through correlation with broadcast signal strength and coverage areas.) Another study, by the Children’s Media Lab at University of Pennsylvania shows that kids began to demonstrate an improvement in literacy after viewing just a few episodes of the PBS show Super Why!, and those who watched longer far outperformed their peers, and retained those gains over time.
For her part, Wilder continues to run the show’s content past kids in all stages of production to ensure the end result is fun and entertaining. She considers this her way to practically provide the same sort of gut-check that occurred in Big, that late-‘80s Tom Hanks movie in which a kid accidentally becomes trapped in the body of a toy company executive. “I wanted to be the adult in the room that thought like a kid and said, ‘What’s so fun about that?’” she says. “My goal and desire is to give kids a voice in everything we do.”