Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Fighter Jet Coin Sorter

As a boy I would regularly count my money. Often, my brother would count his money at the same time, each of us sitting on our respective beds in the room we shared, and it would become a kind of competition, both to see who could count their coins the fastest as well as who had the most. It didn't take us too long to realize that whoever won the first race was destined to lose the second.

It was rare for either of us to have any paper money when we were little, so it was all about counting coins: pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. At first, we would count them out one at a time, trying to keep a running tally in our heads, but it didn't take us long to start stacking our pennies into piles of ten to speed things up. Then we innovated the concept of ten stacks of ten, then counting most of it by dollars, leaving the cent counting for whatever was left over. At some point, we moved our counting games to the hardwood floor where we could properly stack our coins, which is how we discovered we only had to count one stack of, say, ten dimes, then just use that to measure out the rest of our stacks of dimes, and so on. Stacking in tens worked for pennies and nickels as well for counting out dimes, but quarters were a special case, requiring only four to a stack.

These are things we figured out on our own, although I reckon an adult must have at some point provided us with some insight into the values of the various coins, but in my memory it all started with pennies, then as the sheer number of them became unwieldy we learned to appreciate the efficiency of nickels, then dimes, then quarters, and then finally paper money. There was a very brief moment when I, as the older brother, could convince my younger brother to trade one of his nickels for five of my pennies, but the window of opportunity for that scam was only open for a few days before he figured it out.

After one long solo counting session, I had the idea of maintaining my coins in stacks on a shelf, the motivation being that I could then, at any moment, quickly calculate my total at a glance rather than going through all that counting over and over. That didn't last long, however, as I found that I missed the process of taking a chaotic pile of coins and creating order. This was true until I acquired my fighter jet coin sorter.

The coin sorter was both a toy and a "piggy bank." You would drop a coin into the slot atop the cockpit. You could hear the sound of the coin obeying gravity by rolling down the interior of the fuselage. Then when you pressed the button labeled "coin release," the coin would drop into its proper cylinder. You could see your coins stacking up through the clear plastic which had gauge markings that did the counting for you. A full stack of quarters amounted to $10, a massive sum in those days. If you filled up all the cylinders, the total was $16.90, although I discovered that you could fit one extra dime in there to make it a round $17. One of my first insights into the absurdity of adult life was understanding that the size of the coins, except in the case of quarters, didn't match their value. It seemed to me that pennies ought to be the smallest. Also, it seemed arbitrary that pennies were a different color.

I still own the jet fighter coin sorter. It's one of the "special toys" I share with young children. Unlike most of our toys, I request that they treat it gently, that they don't force things, that they keep in on the table, and that they don't use it for anything other than its intended purpose, which is to sort coins. I tell them that it's very special to me, that I've had it since I was a boy, and that I would be sad if it got broken. I've never known a child who doesn't treat it with reverence with that set up. We huddle around it, taking turns, making predictions, and sharing insights. One could call this an "educational toy" I suppose, but then, I'm afraid, adults would feel that they must hover over the play, peppering the children with math facts. I know from experience that this toy doesn't need any help to teach: all it requires is a pile of coins and the freedom and time to experiment. Indeed, one needn't have a fighter jet coin sorter at all as long as you have the freedom and the time.

Worse than that, however, are the adults who would find it necessary to further pepper the children with morality lessons about "saving up" or "working hard" or even how "money is the root of all evil." 

The other day as we played with the fighter jet coin sorter, one boy began to fill his pockets with coins. He thought he was being sneaky, but before long the weight of the coins in his pocket threatened to pull his pants down. The other children, who had been filling and emptying the coin sorter began to notice that their coin supply had dwindled. One girl said, "Last time, we had almost $6 in that stack. Now it's only $3." The boy with the full pockets was so busy holding up his pants that he started missing his turn with the coin sorter. With fewer coins, the other children began to tire of their old game and started, as I had done as a boy, experimenting with the timing of pushing the "coin release" button. They learned that if they pushed the button quickly, they could force the dimes to fall in the nickel cylinder or even, if they were particular quick, the one meant for quarters. They experimented with what happens if they inserted more than one coin at a time, finding that it often jammed the mechanism. We also figured out how to fix the jam. We were impoverished, but still playing. Meanwhile, this boy remained there, wealthy, but left out and consumed with the all-encompassing project of holding up his pants. 

After several minutes of this, he complained irritably, "When do I get a turn?" The other children paused and made room for him, but he couldn't manage it without losing his pants. Finally, he "confessed" as if it were a joke, then began emptying his pockets onto the table by the fist full. When our money counting games of making order from chaos resumed there was plenty for everyone.


"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices.
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