"I Want To Short Lollipops Today"

Kids can learn online how to save and invest

Meet Sell-Hi. It's a friendly robot programmed to monitor your money. Then there's Gold Bullion, who lives in a secret tunnel under the New York Stock Exchange and emerges at night to battle bear markets and inflation. You'll find these cartoon characters not on some Saturday morning TV show, but at Big Money Adventure, a Web site run by broker A.G. Edwards & Sons that aims to help children learn the basics of money and investing.

Who says teaching kids the value of a buck must be a drag? Numerous sites on the World Wide Web, some backed by the biggest brokers on Wall Street and others put up by kids themselves, now feature stock market simulations and other games aimed at getting children hooked on good saving and investing habits (table).

While the information they present can be rudimentary, these sites are useful and entertaining tools for teaching the ABCs of investing. But before you sit your Buffetts-in-training down for an afternoon of financial Web surfing, be aware that they may be exposed to advertising and not-so-subtle attempts to have Mom and Dad invest with sponsors. Parents should also read the privacy policies of the companies running the sites to see what's being done with the information collected on youngsters.

That said, these sites can be fun. I had a go recently at the game geared for 6-to 10-year-olds at the A.G. Edwards site (www.agedwards.com/bma/index.shtml). Players assume the roles of a couple of kids walking through a jungle. Along the way, they're presented various options to click on. Do the youngsters blow their money on sunglasses being sold by a monkey? Or do they invest in a bear's necklace business? Choose the necklace maker and watch the money grow. Blow it on the sunglasses and lose everything.

Children over 10 can compete for T-shirts in another game at the site, Star Traders. Players build a diversified portfolio by choosing five stocks from a list of companies. A brief description goes along with each company's name--Walt Disney is "the best of the best in storytelling" and PetsMart is "Fido's pick." The portfolio with the highest percentage increase over a period of about a month wins. One downer: To play this game, children must supply their phone numbers during registration.

Kids who do well playing the stock market game at another site, MainXchange (www.mainxchange.com), can earn anything from Hasbro board games to perfume from Donna Karan International. You'll find links to these and other companies providing prizes at the site. As the game begins, players are issued 100,000 BuX, the virtual currency of the game, to invest as they see fit. Stock trades are based on the actual market with quotes delayed about 15 minutes. Players can also check out headlines from CNN. The idea is to earn "Xstars," which can be swapped for the prizes or used to bid against other participants at an "MXAuction." Kids earn 100 Xstars for every 1% gain in their portfolio's total value each week, up to 1,000 Xstars per week.

CYBERSMARTS. At Young Investor, a site from Liberty Financial (www.younginvestor.com), kids can back into play investing. The lure is a variety of money-oriented crossword puzzles, trivia, and brain teasers. In Money-Tration, a memory game similar to Concentration, kids click on squares covering up coins and paper money in an effort to match--and flip over--identical pictures.

A link at Liberty's site takes kids to the Stock Market Game, run by the Securities Industry Foundation for Economic Education, an affiliate of the Securities Industry Assn. More than two decades old, the simulation is often used in classrooms in grades 4 through 12. Players, sometimes in teams, are given a hypothetical $100,000 in cash and may borrow additional funds, with interest depending upon how their accounts are faring. Participants "invest" in common stocks listed on major exchanges. Dividends and stock splits are factored in, and brokerage commissions are also charged. Older kids can even place orders to sell short, although the order is for a minimum of 100 shares. Players can use the game's Web site to research stocks, enter trades, and track performance.

Salomon Smith Barney Young Investors Network (www.smithbarney.com/yin) offers another way to ease into investing. Its goal is to impart financial literacy at an early age by stressing the importance of markets, careers, and fiscal responsibility. Kids learn to set up financial goals and a budget, and can create a "cyberportfolio" with up to eight stocks they can track on a daily basis. They also get a sales pitch: "Ask your parents to call a Salomon Smith Barney Financial Consultant."

You'll find an equally blatant sales pitch at Strongkids.com, a site with a mutual-funds quiz and interactive calculators aimed at youngsters. Kids are told that once they master the financial info at the site, "to grab your parents" and look at the Strong On-Line Web site, where there's plenty of info on Strong's family of funds.

EXTRA LOOT. You won't find such brazen hucksterism at Moneyopolis (www.moneyopolis.org), the site run by the accounting firm of Ernst & Young. Sixth-to eighth-graders start out as new residents in the city of Moneyopolis. Each gets $600. Kids earn extra loot by correctly answering math questions in each of the town's seven "centers." The Personal Planning Center is where the kids pay annual living expenses. City Hall is where income taxes are due. Other centers cover jobs, banking, and education. Sample question: "At the end of your first year in Moneyopolis, you have earned $1,835. Your liabilities include a $600 loan from the bank and $479.53 for taxes. If you have no other assets, what is your net worth?" Kids who save at least $1,000 and earn three community service medallions after touring all seven centers win the game.

What of kids with real money to spend? A new site called AllowanceNET (www.allowancenet.com), from BigChange Networks, lets parents and preteens choose a daily schedule of activities and chores such as homework or walking the dog, and agree on an allowance paid in cash or a virtual currency called "diditz" as those tasks are completed. Parents can reward one didit per day for each of up to 15 activities that may be finished. Diditz can be redeemed for products at AllowanceNET's online store, including cell phones, software, and watches provided by sponsors such as Ralston Purina, Nokia, and Electronic Arts. Parents have the right to reduce the allowance paid for certain chores if they must nag a child to get a chore done.

It's only fair, then, that kids get to turn the tables on their folks through the "Parent Payback" feature. By negotiating assignments for Mom and Dad--having you pick them up on time after band practice, for instance--children can reward diditz to you from their own accounts. Want to bet that teaches kids how to hold onto their hard-earned savings?

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