'It's like doing your homework but you get to jump up and down too'

The Christmas toys and games that can give your kids a financial education while they're having fun
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The Independent Online

Many panic-stricken parents are currently scouring toyshops and online stores for exciting presents to light up their little treasures' faces on Christmas Day.

But a bit of imaginative thinking could help their kids learn how to find their own treasure - and face a brighter financial future.

Any teacher will tell you that children learn best through play, and a search of the best Christmas gift outlets will turn up great toys and games with financial lessons to teach.

"There is no doubt that games and family activities can help children learn about the value of money and its role in society," says Wendy van den Hende, chief executive of the Personal Finance Education Group (Pfeg).

"Just as asking your kids to work out the change or read prices when you go to the shops can get them accustomed to using money. Playing a game where these skills are used can reinforce them."

Children can also pick up a fear of numbers and money from their parents, so it's important to show that maths can be fun. There are plenty of quirky number games in the shops to help them beat those fears.

Forcing finance on children is likely to make them switch off, but games involving money will maintain their interest.

As UK adults share a collective responsibility for £1 trillion of debt, children need all the help they can get to avoid their parents' mistakes.

We've tried out a selection of maths and money toys. Here's our pick of the best.

Pre-schoolers

Kids love playing at shops so a cash register (Woolworths, £12.99) is a good first financial toy. The best ones let the little shopkeeper swipe a toy credit card, allowing you to give them an early warning about the potential pitfalls of store cards.

Simple counting games are also subtle ways of teaching children about money. Counting Cookies ( www.letterbox.co.uk, £12.99) is a number game for tinies, while Magnetic Numbers (Lloyds Pharmacy, £3) let them do their own sums on the fridge.

Kids can also pick up the basics of shopping and spending by watching their favourite DVDs. One of the newest characters on TV is Peppa Pig, whose adventures include everyday activities such as buying new shoes.

Interactive games are also available to help spark an early interest in numbers. The new Bubble console (around £60, including a DVD) works with your TV and DVD player and uses much-loved characters such as Noddy and the Tweenies to teach counting in a fun way. Visit www.worldofbubble.com for more information.

Primary school kids

Team Kassam - Katie, aged seven, and Finley, five - tested dozens of toys and games aimed at kids from four to 10.

Their favourite was the Maths Mat Challenge Game ( www.letterbox.co.uk, £29.99), which kept them amused for hours and almost made us late for school.

The mat spouts out sums in an only slightly irritating American accent and the kids then have to jump on the right answer. Finley particularly liked the "You're amazing" cheer when he got enough sums correct.

"It's like doing your homework but you get to jump up and down at the same time," he said.

Second favourite was Light 'N' Strike ( www.justchildsplay.co.uk, £24.99), a giant calculator that you have to bash with a hammer when the light shines on the key displaying the correct answer. Parents will be pleased to hear that you can turn the volume right down on it.

No such luck with the Science Museum's Robot Bank (Robert Dyas, £19.99). Indeed it can give you a bit of a fright when it urges you to "Please remember to save today" as you walk past.

The Robot Bank lights up, speaks when you approach it and scolds you when you want to withdraw money. It also keeps a tally of your savings, adding each coin you insert to a digital total on its façade.

There are plenty of board games for kids this age, too. Junior Monopoly was Katie's favourite, and a future in property development looks certain.

"It's great when you've got hotels and Mummy lands on your Mayfair and has to pay lots of rent," she grinned.

Less competitive is Pop to the Shops ( www.justchildsplay.co.uk, £7.99), a shopping game where children learn about having enough money and giving change.

Maths games include Rummikub (£14.99), one of the three most popular family games in the world, and Magic Cauldron Game ( www.justchildsplay.co.uk, £9.99), where rubbing the tokens reveals the answers

We also tried the Chad Valley Post Office (Woolworths, £12.99) and had fun buying stamps for our letters to Santa.

Computer games are a bit of a novelty in our house but the Money Mice CD Rom ( www.sherston.com, £19.95) was a hit. Here, youngsters learn the basics of money, from matching coins to making up change.

Secondary kids

Veteran youngsters are spoilt by the choice of board games on the market today.

Traditional Monopoly is still available but the up-to-date Here And Now version ( www.iwant-oneofthose.com £19.99), where Mayfair has been replaced by the City with a £4m price tag and the top hat has become a mobile phone, will strike a chord with teenagers. The lowest denomination of notes is £10,000.

Star Wars Monopoly exchanges pounds for "Republic" credits, and the boot and car counters have become characters from the film series.

Of course, you can also find Monopoly in numerous other guises, including sets featuring football teams such as Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United ( www.firebox.com, £24.95) - finally a way to get soccer-obsessed youngsters to try something else.

Other board games with financial bents include Pay Day and Game of Life (both Hasbro), and Destination London ( www.brightminds.co.uk, £19.99), where players are cabbies out to make as much money as possible.

An electronic Coin Sorter (menkind.co.uk, £19.99) is a fun way of keeping track of your savings and helps to count up all that shrapnel before you take it to the bank.

Computer games teach finance too, and your kids will be too enthralled playing to notice that you've given them something educational. Sims and Sims 2 (EA Games) are both built around a family that has to be cared for - and this includes finding jobs for the adults so the kids can be fed and clothed.

The number puzzle craze that has swept the UK this year is taking children in too.

Electronic Sudoku ( www.menkind.co.uk, £19.99) will keep them occupied for hours, and if they need some tips on completing the pesky grids, Carol Vorderman's Sudoku CD-Rom (£14.99), with over a million puzzles, could be the answer.

For older teenagers, there's a new book designed for young people leaving home for the first time: Bare Necessities (£7.99) by Jemma Wayne. It's full of tips and information, with a whole section on banking.

And get them used to saving, too

It is all very well playing at finance with your kids, but your lessons will have no real impact if you haven't opened a bank account for them.

This time of year offers a good opportunity to do so, as children are likely to get cash among their Christmas gifts.

If you are in receipt of a child trust fund (CTF) voucher for your baby or toddler, investing that should be a priority. And you can encourage friends and relatives to add to the CTF to build up the healthiest fund possible for your kids when they reach 18.

This apart, all children need a savings account of some sort. The Halifax regular saver, paying 10 per cent, offers the best rate currently available. There are limits on how much you can put into it but these should be generous enough for most youngsters.

Children's savings certificates are good presents, as are premium bonds - which could have an extra bonus. A premium bond held by a Surrey child won a £1m prize last year.

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