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Supported by HSBC UK

It’s a money old world

Learn about the history (and geography) of money, then choose a creative way to show how it’s changed over the years.

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You’ll need

  • Something to show the different stages of money through history
  • A world map (optional)
  • The history of maps resource in a sharable format (such as printed or displayed on a screen)
The History Of Money Asset
PDF – 297.9KB
The History Of Money Asset Low Ink
PDF – 87.1KB

Activity summary

This activity helps everyone learn how money has changed through time and in different countries. It’ll help the group think about the role that money has played in different societies, and what it represents today. Once they’ve learned about the history of money, everyone will choose a way to tell others about it (or share their favourite bit) – they can use any creative way they like.

Before you begin

  • Use the safety checklist to help you plan and risk assess your activity. Additional help to carry out your risk assessment, including examples can be found here. Don’t forget to make sure all young people and adults involved in the activity know how to take part safely.
  • Make sure you’ll have enough adult helpers. You may need some parents and carers to help if you’re short on helpers.

Preparing for this activity

  • Take a look at the facts about the history of money in 'The history of money asset', and choose how you want to share them with the group.
  • You could display them on the screen if you’re meeting online. If you’re meeting face-to-face, use the downloads to print them off. If you have access to some examples of the different kinds of money (or something that looks like them), you could use those too.

Step 1: back in the day...

Further down the page, and in the downloadable asset, you’ll find some information about the history of money, including where different things happened. Mix the 10 stages up and share them in the wrong order. It’s up to you how you share them.

  • Read out the paragraphs and show the pictures. This works really well for online sessions. 
  • Lay out pictures of each type of money. You could print them out.
  • Use physical examples, if you can get hold of them, of the different types of money for the group to handle and explore.

Talk about what people noticed. How did money change? What do they think made these changes happen? What do they think might happen next?  

Step 2: order

Now it’s time to put the stages in the right order.

  • People could draw the different types of money in the right order. This works well if your session is online because everyone can draw their own versions.
  • If you have the images in front of everyone, people could take it in turns to suggest where a stage should go. You could add a timer to make it more fun and encourage everyone to work together! 
  • People could have a relay race. They should split into teams and stand in lines. Lay out a timeline to represent history: where they’re standing is the beginning of the history of money, and the end is modern day. Give everyone a picture, object, or label representing one of the stages. Everyone should take it in turns to put their stage in the right place on the timeline, working as fast as they can. The team can talk about which order they think is the right one before the race starts.

Step 3: tell the world

Now everyone knows about the history of money, it’s time to share their new knowledge! Everyone should choose their own way to share what they’ve learned about the history of money. It’s up to them whether they work in groups or on their own – the most important thing is that they find it interesting and share their opinion.

  • Put the stages on a world map to show where (and how) money has been used in different places throughout history. You could use a digital map, one hanging in your meeting place, or one you’ve drawn together.
  • Create a comic about your favourite part of the history of money. How has money changed and travelled? How much fun can you make its journey? 
  • Create a performance about your favourite parts of the history of money. It’s up to you what you perform: it could be a song, dance, comedy routine, sketch, scene, play, poem, or something else.

The history of money

Print the stages and cut around the boxes or mix them up and show them on a screen. A printable PDF can be found in the 'before you begin' section of this activity. It’s up to you whether to include the dates – you know your group and their learning levels best.

People traded items which had a practical value, including food (cattle, fish), clothing (fur, cloth), decorative item, tools, weapons, and services. This was called ‘bartering’, which means exchanging resources or services so both sides benefit.  

What could you exchange today?

Cattle means sheep, camels, and other livestock as well as cows. Throughout history and across the globe cattle were used to trade. Later, people began to barter using grain and other vegetable or plant products in many cultures.

Why would it be useful to exchange livestock? What would be the downsides? How much do you think a cow would be worth?

Large animals can be difficult to travel with. Cowrie shells, which are widely available in the shallow waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, were light and easy to carry. They were first used as currency in China. They were later used in India and in some parts of Africa.

The cowrie shell is the most widely and longest used currency in history. One of the reasons for this is that they are almost impossible to forge (make pretend, worthless copies of). Today, coins in Ghana have a cowrie shell on them to remember this part of history!

What is another benefit of cowrie shells? For example, they’re easy to transport.

People in China were inspired to make pretend (imitation) cowrie shells from bronze and copper. These were the earliest forms of metal coins. The coins later developed into round coins made of base metals (common, less expensive metals). The coins contained holes so that they could be put together on a chain.

Why would it be useful to put money on a chain? What would a modern equivalent of this be?

Outside of China, the first coins (as we know them today) came from Lydia, which is part of present-day Turkey.

The Lydians were the first people to mint (make) coins that had their unique value written on it. Their coins had a stamp to represent where they came from and how much they were worth. Their coins were also the first to use symbolic animals. They often had lions, as symbols of kings, strength, and protection.

These new coins were made from precious metals such as silver, bronze, and gold, and were called ‘staters’. They usually weighed the same as 220 grains of wheat.

What animal would you have on your own coin? What would they represent?

Leather money was used in China. They would use one-foot-square pieces of white deerskin with colourful borders. Lots of people say this is the first recorded type of banknote. The value of this particular deerskin was 40,000 ‘cash’, a word which referenced the name of a type of old metal coin.

What do you think it would have been like to have one-foot-square pieces of leather to pay for things? What colours would you use on your banknotes?

Merchants in China used to carry a long string with metal coins attached so they could keep track of how much they had.

When their coins got too heavy to carry, they would leave it with a trustworthy agent (like a bank today). In exchange for the coins, the agent would write on a piece of paper how many coins that merchant had. The merchant could then take that paper and exchange it for goods with a seller. The seller could go to the agent and exchange the note for the strings of coins.

Then, people started making paper notes in factories called the ‘jiaozi’. The factories would print paper money using wooden blocks covered in ink. Each colour of ink used had its own kind of paper that would be difficult to reproduce. Early paper currency would often only be accepted in particular regions (places) and would not be accepted after three years of being printed.

What does that remind you of today?

Wampum are small white and black (or purple), round-shaped beads. They’re made from whelk and quahog shells. The word ‘wampum’ means white.

These beads are made into bracelets and belts or threaded on strings. They’re used in important discussions, to record events and promises people make, to tell stories, to give as gifts, and as something that can be traded.

The colours and patterns woven into the belts and bracelets have different meanings. White is often used for positive messages and purple is often used for negative messages (or used to create patterns). What might this practice look like today?

The UK used a system of coins with pounds, shillings, and pence. There were 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound. The history of the system went back to Anglo-Saxon times and beyond.

The government made the system more modern by switching to the money we use today, where there are 100 pennies in a pound.

What do you think it was like having to change the way you counted money?

Today we often use digital technology to make payments. People can use their phone, card, or watch to transfer funds. Even if no actual money is exchanged, you see the amount of money go down in one account, and go up in another.  

With digital technology, we make transactions that represent money, rather than exchanging actual notes or coins. What does this remind you of? 


The history (and geography) of how people have paid for things over time can tell us a lot about their societies. Can you remember all the different materials used as money? What did they represent? What do you think will happen to money next?


All activities must be safely managed. You must complete a thorough risk assessment and take appropriate steps to reduce risk. Use the safety checklist to help you plan and risk assess your activity. Always get approval for the activity, and have suitable supervision and an InTouch process.

It’s up to you whether you show people the years next to each stage – it might give some helpful clues, or it might make things more complicated. You may need to explain how BC and AD years work, for example, that 100BC came before 10BC. 

If you choose to do a relay race, make sure everyone can take part – you could focus on accuracy, rather than speed, or set a pace that works for everyone.  

All Scout activities should be inclusive and accessible.

Talk about and design your own version of what money might look like in the future.

Take a look at more money skills activities.

The group can decide how they want to express what they’ve learned in the session.